The Waste Hierarchy Explained

The waste hierarchy is a concept developed to contribute to more sustainable and environmentally friendly methods of waste management

In the guide below, we explain what the waste hierarchy is, list each of the options in the waste hierarchy, and also give examples of each option


Summary – The Waste Hierarchy

What Is The Waste Hierarchy?

It’s a waste management concept that includes a hierarchical pyramid of waste management options

The hierarchy of options are organized in a descending order, with the most desirable and potentially most sustainable options at the top, and the least desirable and potentially least sustainable options at the bottom

The aim of the concept is to contribute to more sustainable waste management that minimizes negative environmental impact (like waste pollution for example), and helps conserve resources


What Are The Waste Management Options In The Waste Hierarchy?

From top (most desirable) to bottom (least desirable), the typical options in the hierarchy can look like this:

Prevent Waste

Reduce Waste


Recycle Waste


Dispose Of Waste


Understanding That The Waste Hierarchy Is Just A Concept

The waste hierarchy is a concept or a tool only.

Therefore, it’s only a concept cities and towns may take it into account when developing their overall waste management strategies, rather than something they would strictly follow

Some of the key reasons a city or town may not be able to implement the waste hierarchy into their strategy in any significant way might include:

– There are practical limitations and considerations across different aspects of waste management 

– What is economically feasible might conflict with with what is sustainable and environmentally friendly


Additionally, the waste hierarchy is not always the best approach for all types of waste, as different types of waste have different variables to consider.

And also, there may be waste management options/methods outside of what is listed or identified in the waste hierarchy.


Similar Sustainability & Waste Management Concepts To The Waste Hierarchy

The R’s of sustainability, waste management and recycling are similar sustainability and waste management concepts to the waste hierarchy


Prevent Waste Generation

Prevention involves the generation of waste being prevented in the first place – either a portion of the waste, or all of the waste

It’s listed as the top option because all waste requires resources at the production stage, has an environmental footprint, and requires waste management. Preventing waste in the first place eliminates these things.

Prevention can be achieved in a number of ways, including some of the options listed elsewhere on the waste hierarchy pyramid

For example, waste generation could be prevented by reducing consumption rates, or reducing the amount of packaging and waste material used in products

Manufacturers may even look at ways of treating and re-using waste water, so it re-enters the production stage instead of becoming waste


Reduce Waste

Reducing involves reducing the total amount of waste generated (that would have otherwise entered the waste management system)

As one example, producers may manufacture their products with them containing less waste material (such as packaging)

As another example, consumers may choose to buy products that contain less waste material, such as buying bulk packed goods instead of individually wrapped/packed goods

Reducing the amount of food wasted per week in a standard diet is another option for individuals



Re-using involves re-using materials or products, either for their primary purpose or a secondary purpose, so that they become waste at a slower rate (and the lifecycle of the material or product is extended)

For example, a carrier bag might be used multiple times for shopping instead of being thrown out after one use. Some carrier bags may even be used as a bin liner as a secondary use before being disposed of

Another example might involve selling or donating an item of clothing so it can be used secondhand (as a pre-worn item), instead of being disposed of

Another example is repairing or restoring products. Consumers may get a product like a phone repaired or have a part like a battery replaced, instead of immediately replacing it with a new phone


Recycle Waste

Recycling involves recovering materials from waste and used products, and reprocessing it into recycled material/recycled content (so that it can be used again).

Recycling means that less virgin material or virgin resources are used where recycled content makes up a share of materials used in a new product

Different materials have different recycling rates – some metals for example have higher recycling rates than other materials

Some products aren’t recycled at high rates (for various reasons), with one example being the reasonably low rate that metals are currently recycled and reclaimed from e-waste

Some materials are repurposed in the process of recycling, with plastic being one example of this. Glass can also be repurposed.

Some materials are downcycled instead of being recycled, or before being sent to a disposal option like landfill

There might be a number of ways to improve recycling and increase recycling rates of materials and products



Recovery involves recovering some form of value from waste

Energy recovery is one of the main examples

Waste can be burnt at waste-to-energy plants for example

Another example might be capturing methane gas at landfill sites and converting it into energy

One more example might be composting organic waste, and the composting process producing organic matter or a ‘compost mix’ product that can be used as a soil fertilizer (amongst other uses)


Dispose Of Waste

Disposal of waste involves disposing of the waste without recycling it, or recovering any value or energy from it

One example it sending waste to landfill and leaving it to decompose over time 


The Waste Hierarchy Is Not Always Accurate For All Types Of Waste

The waste hierarchy is a concept only

The waste management methods/options towards the top of the hierarchy aren’t always the most sustainable or eco friendly methods/options for all types of waste

As one example of this, there may be instances where incineration is more eco friendly for some types of waste such as carrier bags in some cities or towns

As another example, mentions that because washing machines have their greatest lifecycle impact at the usage stage, it might be best to replace an existing energy inefficient washing machine with a newer energy efficient one, rather than try to repair and restore the existing one


Practical, Economic & Other Considerations For Waste Management

What is more environmentally friendly and sustainable when it comes to waste management are only some of the aspects that are considered in an overall waste management strategy for a city or town

What is practical, and what is economically feasible are also considered.

As a few examples or illustrations of this:

– Cities and towns have to base their short and medium term waste management strategies around existing infrastructure and existing budgets. Not all cities and towns have the ability to modify or upgrade waste management strategies and systems if their infrastructure or budgets don’t practically allow it

– Although disposal ranks at the bottom of the waste hierarchy, landfills are currently the most commonly used waste management method for majority of waste

– Although recycling might be preferred over other waste management options, not all products and materials are easily recycled (different plastics are an example of this), and some materials can only be recycled a limited number of times before they will end up in landfill or being incinerated anyway. In this instance, landfill or incineration are required, and can complement recycling as part of an overall waste strategy

Recycling is not always profitable or economically feasible for some types of waste


Ultimately, each type of waste in each city or town around the world might have a different waste management option that is more ideal for it than others.

Each type of waste might need it’s own assessement.


Other Available Waste Management Options Not Listed In The Waste Hierarchy

There are a number of other options not listed in the hierarchy.

One example might be treating harmful waste before it is released into the environment e.g. treating waste water at production plants before discharging it 

Other might be:

Mechanical treatment of waste

Other forms of treating waste with heat other than incineration

Using solid waste and municipal waste in biofuels such as sustainable aviation fuel


Something else mentions is that ‘source reduction’ might be another option for waste management and dealing specifically with hazardous waste. ‘Source reduction’ involves modifying industrial production with ‘… changes in manufacturing technology, raw material inputs, and product formulation’

So, managing production processes prior to waste being generated might be another option.










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