Christian M. 6 min read

Waste hierarchy

The waste hierarchy has gone from a vague framework developed by academics in the 1970s to the key principle driving waste management regulation, policy, strategy, and the key foundation for the circular economy.

This article explains everything you need to know about the waste hierarchy, from its many variations to its history and subsequent pervasiveness in the UK waste regulations, policy, and strategy.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • Prioritisation: The waste hierarchy establishes a clear order of preference for waste management practices, emphasising prevention and reuse over recycling, recovery, and disposal.
  • Versatile: A waste hierarchy can be as general as “The 3 Rs” or as detailed as applying to specific industry sectors and waste types.
  • Cornerstone in legislation: The waste hierarchy is deeply embedded in UK law, with regulations and guidance documents that ensure compliance and promote sustainable waste management practices.

What is the waste hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is the cornerstone waste management framework. It ranks waste management strategies such as “waste reduction,” “waste recycling,” and “waste disposal” as priorities, ensuring the most sustainable and environmentally friendly options are tried first and foremost.

A waste hierarchy is typically represented as a straight or inverted triangular pyramid separated into several levels, each representing a different waste management strategy. It can be applied as a general rule of thumb by everyday people and businesses or tailored in detail by policymakers to suit specific waste types or industry sectors.

Waste hierarchy
A six-tier generalised waste hierarchy. Source: Lumen learning

This versatility has made it sticky and applicable at all levels, from primary school education to complex training of advanced machine learning algorithms. It has been expressed in simple slogans like “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” or coded into advanced waste management software.

Let’s have a look at an example of each of these:

The 3 Rs

In its more basic, bare-bones, generalised form, the waste hierarchy has three distinct tiers:

  1. Reduce: Minimise the amount of waste generated.
  2. Reuse: Extend the life of items by finding new uses for them.
  3. Recycle: Process waste materials into new products.

This simplified version captures the essential waste management principles by emphasising reducing waste at its source, reusing items to prevent waste, and recycling materials to conserve resources.

It excels as an everyday guidance for quick decision-making and a tool for educating children and adults about what to do when in doubt. It’s simple and sticky enough to commit to memory, and as such, it can be super effective when training employees on what to do with their waste when unsure.

The five-step waste hierarchy

After the “3 Rs”, the five-step hierarchy pyramid is used as waste management guidance. This version keeps it simple yet makes a key distinction between waste prevention and minimisation while including waste recovery and waste disposal as bottom priorities.

  1. Prevention: Prevents waste creation using fewer materials and designing products for longer life.
  2. Minimisation: Reducing the amount of waste produced by improving production processes.
  3. Reuse: Extending the life of products by reusing them for the same or different purposes.
  4. Recycling & Recovery: Processing materials to make new products or recovering energy or other waste components.
  5. Disposal: Safely disposing of waste, usually through landfilling, is the least preferred option due to its environmental impact.

An increase in the popularity of “incineration” as a popular waste management approach in both developed and developing countries has also extended this into a six-step hierarchy that distinguishes between recycling and recovery.

The ‘zero waste’ hierarchy

The zero waste hierarchy is an extension that prioritises waste prevention and management strategies to achieve “zero waste”. This refers to a fully “circular” society where few raw inputs are required because resources remain useful in the system into perpetuity, so there is zero waste disposal.

In other words, it’s an idealistic waste hierarchy, perhaps one that will become practical in a few decades when existing hierarchies are no longer sufficient. It involved re-designing and re-thinking entire systems to incorporate a fully circular model. For example, it would require finding useful use cases for hazardous, nuclear and clinical waste and eliminating single-use plastics, to name a few.

The zero waste hierarchy typically includes the following steps (The “7Rs”), with the contrast in priorities being much narrower than in the generalised hierarchy utilised at present:

  1. Refuse: Avoid using or purchasing unnecessary products and packaging.
  2. Reduce: Minimise waste generated by choosing durable, long-lasting products.
  3. Re-use: Extend the life of products by reusing them or repurposing materials.
  4. Repair: Fix items instead of discarding them.
  5. Recycle: Process materials to create new products.
  6. Rot: Compost organic waste to return nutrients to the soil.
  7. Rethink: Innovate and design products and systems that eliminate waste.

Other waste hierarchy variants

Due to disagreements between experts and changing times and attitudes, the general waste hierarchy has multiple variants. For example, the waste hierarchy below considers prevention and minimisation together as waste reduction because that is what it effectively does.

Instead, it distinguished “repair” as an additional option between reusing an item and recycling, considering the current boom in electronic items entering the waste stream that was absent in the past. There is now a billion-pound “refurbishment” industry filling this market!

The Waste Hierarchy
A contemporary waste hierarchy that takes into account the growing “refurbishment” of waste electronics (Source: LSE)

History of the Waste Hierarchy

The concept of a waste hierarchy emerged in the 1970s as environmental scientists and policymakers began developing the idea of prioritising waste management strategies to reduce environmental impact.

Its first formal introduction can be traced back to the first EU Waste Framework Directive (Directive 75/442/EEC), which officially introduced the hierarchy into EU rules as early as 1975. However, the first graphic hierarchy would take another 14 years to appear in guidelines published by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) published guidelines.

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro popularised the waste hierarchy graphic, giving it a global reach.

Waste Hierarchy in the UK

The UK was one of the initial proponents of the 1975 EU Waste Framework Directive and, therefore, the waste hierarchy. However, it would take until 2008 to formally set the hierarchy as a guiding principle for waste management policies across the EU, including the UK (which was part of the EU until Brexit).

Consultations began in 2010 on how to implement the directive into UK law, and finally, it was introduced into devolved waste policy and regulations in 2011. Once established into law, it started being incorporated into government plans, strategies, and education programs, and it continues being reinforced into law with the latest 2021 Environmental Protection Act revision.

Waste hierarchy by sector

While the general waste hierarchy principles apply broadly across all sectors, specific waste types often have tailored guidelines and regulations to address their unique waste management challenges.

Extra focus is added to specific tiers of the hierarchy where doing so can significantly reduce environmental impacts and incentivise circular economy processes:

SectorWaste TypeWaste Hierarchy Differences
Office WasteStationary, cardboard, electronics, food, garden, etc.Focus is on prevention through digital transformation, re-use of stationary and recycling
Industrial WasteManufacturing by-productsFocus on industrial symbiosis where waste from one process is used as input for another
Construction WasteConstruction and demolitionHigh emphasis on material re-use on-site, extensive recycling of concrete, bricks, metals to avoid landfills
Agricultural WasteOrganic waste (crop residues)Specific focus on composting and anaerobic digestion for energy and soil amendment recovery.
Electronic Waste (WEEE)End-of-life electronicsSpecific take-back schemes and producer responsibility, focus on precious metal recycling and energy recovery from metallurgical processes.
Hazardous WasteChemical and toxic wasteSpecialised treatment and containment before disposal. The focus is more on safety and avoiding leakage into the environment.
Healthcare WasteClinical and pharmaceutical wasteStrict segregation, incineration with energy recovery, stringent disposal protocols
Packaging WasteConsumer packaging materialsStrong emphasis on reducing packaging at source and extended producer responsibility. Packaging is difficult to recycle.
Textile WasteClothing and fabricsHigh priority on re-use through charity and second-hand markets, and extended responsability since composite textiles are hard to recycle.
Food WasteOrganic food wasteSpecific focus on prevention (discounts as "safe by" dates), composting and anaerobic digestion.
Automotive WasteEnd-of-life vehiclesDetailed de-pollution processes, part re-use, and material-specific recycling like metals, plastics, and batteries (black mass recycling. A big portion is exported exported.
Cardboard WasteCardboard packagingPrioritisation of recycling, use in composting, and innovative re-use solutions.
Garden WasteGreen waste (leaves, branches)Focus on waste segregation and composting (Recovery).
Plastic WasteConsumer plastic productsIncreased focus on re-use and recycling, initiatives to reduce single-use plastics, chemical recycling
Glass WasteCommercial glass productsStrong emphasis on re-use and recycling, as recovery rates are almost 100%.
Carton WasteCommercial carton productsRecycling and recovery prioritised, focus on reducing use and improving re-use.
Restaurant WasteFood wasteSpecific focus on food redistribution, composting, and anaerobic digestion
Oil and Gas WasteIndustry wasteEmphasis on safe disposal, metal recycling, recovery of hydrocarbons, and minimising environmental impact.

The future of the waste hierarchy

Since the waste hierarchy was implemented into UK law in 2011, there has been significant improvement in waste management practices, effectively reducing waste generation and enhancing recycling rates.

Between 2010 and 2020, the recycling rate for commercial and industrial waste rose from 52% to nearly 70%, while the amount of waste sent to landfill decreased by approximately 65% due to prioritising other waste management methods before disposal, in combination with the landfill tax introduction.

This is because the waste hierarchy supports a more sustainable and efficient use of resources by prioritising prevention, reuse, and recycling. Government initiatives and burgeoning sectors such as electronics waste refurbishment, black mass production from waste batteries, and improvements in recycling technologies have driven this.

Projections indicate that with continued adherence to the waste hierarchy, recycling rates for commercial waste could exceed 80% by 2035, so expect to hear about it for the foreseeable future!

The waste hierarchy – FAQs

Our business waste experts answer commonly asked questions on the waste hierarchy in the UK.

Why is the waste hierarchy important?

The waste hierarchy is the cornerstone principle guiding waste management. Its use as a framework in UK regulations has led to an enormous reduction in landfill waste and increased recycling and reuse rates, and millions of people remember “The 3Rs” to ensure what to do with their waste.

What is the waste management hierarchy?

The waste management hierarchy is just another name for the waste hierarchy.

Why is prevention the top priority of the waste hierarchy?

Prevention is the top priority of the waste hierarchy because it tackles waste at its source, avoiding the environmental and economic costs associated with waste management. For example, many contemporary products often come with excessive packaging, and food products frequently have use-by dates that are too conservative for safety purposes.

Why are so few people aware of the waste hierarchy?

This is due to a combination of factors, including a lack of waste management education, awareness campaigns, an excessive focus on recycling and not the priorities beforehand, excessive greenwashing, and the complexity of waste management systems (for example, waste bin colouring can vary in each local authority!).

Why is the waste hierarchy not considered in advertisements?

The waste hierarchy is often not considered in advertisements because marketing efforts highlight product benefits, features, and immediate consumer appeal rather than complex sustainability practices. The primary goal of advertisements is to drive sales, and integrating detailed environmental messages like the waste hierarchy can complicate the narrative and potentially dilute the marketing message.

Why is the waste hierarchy often shown as an inverted pyramid?

The waste hierarchy is often shown inverted to emphasise the top priorities of waste management visually. Placing prevention at the top, followed by re-use, recycling, recovery, and disposal at the bottom, clearly communicates the preferred order of actions.

Why is feeding animals above composting in the Food Recovery Hierarchy?

Feeding animals is placed above composting in the “Food Recovery Hierarchy” because it is a more efficient use of resources compared to composting, considering the size of UK livestock.

When suitable food waste is used as animal feed, it directly contributes to animal nutrition. It reduces the need for additional feed, which involves resource-intensive processes such as growing, harvesting, and transporting feed crops.

By diverting food waste to animal feed, the immediate environmental impact is lessened as it directly uses the waste, effectively closing the loop faster.

It’s important to note that the ideal hierarchy depends on local context and the specific sustainability goals!

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