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The Waste Hierarchy

When you begin your journey towards becoming significantly more eco-conscious, you’re likely to be introduced to various terms regarding waste reduction and management. Some people are happy to recycle trash. And this is a good thing. But is this the most effective method of dealing with waste? What other steps can you take before sending something for recycling? Is there a process or method in which waste should be dealt with? It turns out there is, and it’s called the waste hierarchy

What is the waste hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is a set of guiding principles for the efficient use of resources. Following the waste hierarchy, can help to regulate consumption and waste of resources. The waste hierarchy is represented as an inverted pyramid with the most important step occupying the large base (top position) and decreasing importance of levels as you go down in the pyramid. Although there have been different waste hierarchies defined over time, they are fairly similar to each other. The waste hierarchy primarily deals with avoidance, resource recovery, and disposal.

The Waste Hierarchy 

The waste hierarchy levels

1.    Reduce

Reducing consumption is the most important step of the waste hierarchy. As we mentioned in earlier blogs, “if you don’t buy something, you do not have to worry about its disposal”. But how do you know whether you actually need something? An easy way is to ask yourself three times whether you need the product. If the answer is a resounding “YES” every single time, you should probably buy it!

Reducing also broadens out to another R-word of sustainability which is refusing. This applies to refusing things you do not need and also choosing to not consume certain goods because of their environmental impact. Most times this can only be done effectively with a little bit of research and environmental awareness. For instance, refusing to use single-use plastic bags or refusing to buy products that have a high carbon footprint anywhere during the production process. 

2.    Repair

Mending a broken article to restore it to its original condition is called repairing. The immediate thought when things break, must be to look for ways to repair them. Durable goods that last three or more years including furniture, carpets, tires, luggage, and most household goods are often repairable. When only a part of something is broken, for example: a panhandle, it may be more eco-friendly to repair it than replace it. This way, you can extend the life of the article a little bit more and also save some money. You could also identify nearby establishments like a shoe repair store or a tailor who might be able to refurbish wearables for you. There might also be merit in learning how to repair everyday household and personal items yourself. 

3.    Reuse

Reusing is the process of using something again in the same form without any modifications. This reduces the use of additional energy or materials which would otherwise be spent on changing the form. Buying preloved clothes or second-hand household items is a good way to start reusing. You could also be on the other side and sell things that you do not use anymore. This can be done by donating to second-hand shops or charity organizations like the red cross organization in your country.

Reusing can also include upcycling. Upcycling, which is also called “creative reuse” involves repurposing a new product of value from used materials. For instance, turning an old shirt into a cleaning rag or repurposing a broken sink into a planter for your garden.

4.    Recycle

When something cannot be reused or repaired, the best option is to recycle. Through recycling, the material is broken down and manufactured into a new product of value.

Although many materials are not recyclable, some materials are guaranteed to be recycled and repurposed. For instance, metals like aluminum, copper, and gold have a high recycling percentage and should be sent for recycling. Other materials like glass can also be recycled effectively.

The best way to ensure that you recycle is to have separate trash bins for plastic, bio-waste, paper, metal, and glass. If your city does not encourage citizens to sort trash, you could also suggest your civic bodies to have trash management facilities which would help to manage waste a lot better than dumping it in landfills.

5.    Recover

Some materials can be recovered to produce energy. Although not the most environmentally friendly practice, recovery methods help to break down materials to produce energy and feed it back into the economy.

Recovery includes processes like anaerobic digestion, incineration, and gasification. Incineration involves the burning of waste at high temperatures. The heat generated from this process is used to create energy. Some countries like Sweden use the heat produced for heating homes and offices.

With anaerobic digestion, organic matter is broken down to produce biogas and biofertilizer. By this process, the waste that would otherwise rot in landfills to produce methane is broken down to produce fuel. Solid waste rotting in landfills constitutes 15% of human-related methane emissions. From these landfills, the methane gas can be captured, converted into Landfill gas (LFG), and used as renewable energy.

Recovery also applies to industrial byproducts like harmful chemicals in common manufacturing processes. For instance, by using the Claus process in paper manufacturing, 95-97% of the Sulphur used can be recovered and used again.

6.    Disposal

The last step in the waste hierarchy when all other options have been exhausted is disposal. Some materials like asbestos and batteries are simply not safe to handle with any of the above steps. Hence, disposal is the only option of management. Disposal has to be done safely and soundly in a way that is not harmful to the person handling the waste or to the environment.

Following the steps of the waste hierarchy is crucial in managing our consumption and waste at home, and also in our organizations. It could save you a ton of money, help to take notice of how much waste you are producing, and increase awareness to sort and segregate waste.


Essential Read

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: An Easy Household Guide

By Nicky Scott (Author) and Axel Scheffler (Illustrator)