The waste management hierarchy presents a systematic order of managing waste according to what’s best for the environment. But how exactly does it work?
The Waste Management Hierarchy Explained
The waste management hierarchy is a conceptual framework designed to guide and rank waste management decisions at both the individual and organisational level. It gives top priority to waste prevention, followed by re-use, recycling, recovery and finally disposal.
The hierarchy helps us rethink our relationship with waste based on five priorities ranked in terms of what’s best for the environment. This is often illustrated as a five-tier inverted pyramid.
The waste management hierarchy replaces the traditional waste management approach of “the three Rs” (reduce, reuse and recycle), expanding it into a five-step process where the most preferred actions are at the top and the least preferred are at the bottom of the inverted pyramid.
The use of the waste management hierarchy came alongside the emergence of life cycle thinking in waste management policy, which looks at the totality of a product or service’s environmental impact — from raw material extraction, processing and manufacturing to distribution, usage and disposal.
This holistic approach to waste management is the impetus of the Waste Framework Directive (WFD), a European Union directive that seeks to establish a long-term path towards sustainable waste management. Article 4 of the WFD makes the waste hierarchy legally binding, requiring businesses and governments of member states to dispose of waste in consideration of best waste management practices.
Understanding Each Stage of the Waste Management Hierarchy
By following the waste management hierarchy, organisations can extract the most benefits from their products and services while minimising their waste output. But what does each stage of the hierarchy mean?
The waste management hierarchy places top priority on reducing or preventing as much waste generation as possible. This stage encourages industries, communities and governments to reduce their use of virgin raw materials to produce goods and services.
The idea is to maximise efficiency and prevent the unnecessary consumption of resources through steps such as:
- Procuring raw materials that come with the least packaging or require the fewest resources to refine.
- Avoiding disposable or single-use goods.
- Procuring materials that are recycled or can be recycled, repaired or reused.
- Optimising inventory to prevent perishable goods (e.g., food) from going to waste.
If your business can’t reduce or prevent waste, you can prepare them for reuse.
Preparing materials for reuse in their original form is the second-best approach to waste management. Aside from reducing your landfill impact, reusing business waste also allows your business to avoid spending on new goods or virgin materials or paying a provider to dispose of your waste for you.
For example, office-based businesses can use these measures to prepare common items for reuse:
- Refilling toner and printer cartridges instead of buying new ones.
- Using durable glasses, mugs, cups, plates and cutlery instead of disposable alternatives.
- Reusing envelopes, boxes and other packaging materials.
- Donating or selling used furniture, computers and other office equipment.
You can even generate income from items and business waste that are valuable to other organisations. For example, scrap stores will purchase scrap metals, fabrics, plastics, paper and cardstock.
Recycling involves processing materials that would otherwise be sent to landfills and turning them into new products. It’s the third step of the waste management hierarchy because of the extra energy and resources that go into creating a new product. For instance, scrap paper can be recycled, but the process requires water and electricity to transform it into pristine paper products.
To maximise recycling opportunities, your business will need to have the proper recycling infrastructure in place, which can be an on-site recycling facility (e.g., for grinding concrete into material for backfilling) or a total waste management provider that can handle segregation, collection and recycling for you.
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When further recycling is not practical or possible, businesses can recover energy or materials from waste through processes such as:
- Anaerobic digestion
The recovered energy can be made available for the organisation’s use or fed back into the electricity grid.
When all else fails, materials that cannot be reused, recycled or recovered for energy will be landfilled and incinerated (without energy recovery). This is an unsustainable method of waste management because waste that sits in landfills can continue to have a damaging environmental impact.
For example, one tonne of landfilled food waste is estimated to produce 450kg of carbon emissions. Landfills can also leak chemicals and toxic liquids that can contaminate the soil and groundwater underneath.
Achieving Zero Waste to Landfill Status
The waste management hierarchy also plays a vital role in helping organisations achieve their zero waste to landfill goals.
In the UK, it’s estimated that 7.2 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) — food waste, green waste, cardboard, paper and more — were sent to the landfill in 2018. That number is 20% of the 1995 baseline of landfilled BMW, putting the UK on pace to achieve the Landfill Directive target of restricting landfill disposals to 35% of the 1995 baseline by 2020.
Adopt the Waste Management Hierarchy Today
With the UK running out of landfill space, companies must find viable end-of-life solutions for their products and services to keep them out of landfills. Thankfully, zero-to-landfill targets are now in vogue, led by companies like Dell and Unilever. At Axil, we’ve worked with brands like Whirlpool and Cummins to help them achieve and maintain zero-to-landfill status
Waste Management and Covid-19
As several countries chart a course out of lockdowns and social distancing guidelines, the issue of waste management and its impact on the environment has once again come to the forefront of political discourse.
According to the report, “COVID-19’s Impact on the Waste Sector” by the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the pandemic poses multiple waste management challenges. For starters, it has slowed down the recycling of plastics and other products, not just because of the risk of coronavirus transmission but also because of supply chain disruptions.
The pandemic’s economic impact, paired with low commodity prices, has also raised concerns that manufacturers may increase their dependence on cheaper virgin raw materials over recycled feedstock.
Disposal at landfills has also increased, in part because of the increase in recyclable materials (such as packaging and plastics) being sent to municipal waste centres. The IFC report also notes an uptick in single-use plastic production, driven largely by the increased use of plastic-based personal protective equipment (PPE) and packaging materials.
For businesses and governments alike, this global increase in waste generation represents a critical opportunity to refocus their waste management efforts according to the principles outlined in the waste hierarchy. But what is a waste management hierarchy?
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