The Waste Hierarchy is a sustainable waste management model that categorises the various options for dealing with waste into an order of preference in a simple five-step hierarchy.
At the top of the waste hierarchy is Waste Prevention. This is simply the most effective way of dealing with waste as it reduces the amount of waste being generated in the first place therefore reducing the impact on the environment and also money is saved by managing less waste.
Next in the hierarchy is Reuse. This is another way of preventing waste by giving products and materials a second use thus prolonging its lifespan.
The third step in the Waste Hierarchy is Recycle. Recycling is where waste materials are treated or processed to make a similar product. Paper back into paper etc. As well as the practicalities of recycling the material, recycling does depend on there being a product which can be made out of the recycled material (paper for example can be recycled a finite number of times (approx. 9) before the fibre length shortens too much) and, that there is a viable market for the material!
After Recycling on the Hierarchy comes Recovery. This stage includes other processes which try to extract any value left in the materials, and can primarily be used to recover energy. These processes include anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery as well as gasification.
Finally, on the Waste Hierarchy is Disposal. In the UK, disposal to landfill or incineration, will also involve some form of energy recovery – extraction of landfill gas in the case of landfill sites and production of heat and electricity in incineration plants and it could be argued these are actually recovery. Where there is no energy recovery, and the materials are discarded this is at the bottom of the hierarchy and so should only be used as a last resort.
If the public and business in the UK did manage their waste in accordance with the waste hierarchy the waste and resources industry would look a very different place.
The Alternative Waste Hierarchy!
So how does the current waste hierarchy work – a slightly tongue in cheek look at what actually happens in practice.
Reduce – there are lots of ways the public harness the power of reduce. For example:
- Go into Aldi for a jar of coffee and leave with a pressure washer (because it was reduced)
- Multiple items of clothes purchased which we don’t need because they were reduced
- Two for one food items when the first one never actually gets eaten but it was reduced!
Re use – clear out the rooms and cupboards in November and take material to the HWRC (household waste recycling centre), so you can re-use the space
Recycle – Governments (particularly in Scotland) have spent a fortune on bins to make recycling as easy as possible for the public. When you actually analyse the figures less than 30% is generally recycled per household (the remainder in Local Authority figures is made up of recycling from other sources, for example HWRC sites). From the work we do providing waste compositional analysis we know that 60-70% of the waste in a residual bin could go into other bins. So, the reality is we all talk a good game about recycling but many do not practice a good game.
Recovery – we used to be quite good at recovery, large portion of wastes was paper and cardboard and we burnt it for heat. The huge opportunity for recovery in residual waste is food waste – if it is collected separately it will be taken to an anaerobic digestion plant and methane (and then electricity) and digestate (a liquid fertilizer) will be produced! The fact that a huge portion of the population of Scotland (who claim to care for the environment and recycle as much as possible) fail to use the food waste collection system is a scandal. Very few councils have a participation rate of over 50%!
Disposal – we have a strange view of waste, once we have it, we don’t want it. We appear to forget it was us who bought it and produced it in the first place. You only need to go to HWRC sites after Christmas to see the queues of traffic with the public desperate to get rid of their waste. And if the site dares to be closed there is no way it can be taken back home; it gets dumped at the entrance or in a layby!
What Can We Do?
Reduce – do we really, really, really need it? Take the “waste free packed lunch” challenge!
Re use – if we can’t use it can someone else use it. Change behaviour take re fillable bottle, take reusable coffee cup etc.
Recycle – are we really participating fully or are we playing at it? If not using your food waste system, start immediately!
Recover – by using the bin system correctly, the resource management industry can recover value from waste easier. Residual waste with no food waste is easier to recover energy!
Disposal – dispose correctly and let’s make littering totally unacceptable!
Once we are all doing these things then we can start to worry about the environmental impact of plastic straws!!