A Beginner’s Guide to the Waste Hierarchy

Much of how we handle waste in the modern world is now driven by what is called the waste hierarchy. It’s a process that is outlined in the EU Waste Framework directive and involves the important stages of prevention, reuse and recycling, before final disposal. The aim of the hierarchy is to make sure that we send much less of our waste to landfill and recycle as much as possible.

In the UK alone we produce in the region of 100 million tonnes of waste annually. Every home and every office and industry produces its fair share of rubbish. Each household creates about a tonne of waste every year and the average home throws away the equivalent of 6 trees worth of paper and card. The good news is that almost two thirds of the paper waste that we produce in the UK is now recycled thanks to local councils and their waste management processes.

Sticking to the waste hierarchy is a key factor in all this.

Waste Prevention

The best way to cut down on waste is to prevent it in the first place. This is the immediate focus of the waste hierarchy and applies as much to households as it does to offices and corporations. While home owners have less legislation to contend with when it comes to handling waste, we all have a duty of care to make sure that we don’t produce it in large amounts. Making a few lifestyle changes can greatly reduce the amount of waste that your household produces each year.

In the home this could include:

  • Using up left overs for meals rather than throwing into the waste.
  • Not buying more than we need, particularly when it comes to doing the weekly shop.
  • Opting for products that have less packaging or biodegradable packaging.
  • Reducing the amount of junk mail you receive by moving to digital notifications or asking for mail deliveries to be stopped.

In the office, there is even more scope for preventing waste:

  • Reducing the amount that is printed out by using smart devices to view files and information.
  • Choosing suppliers who provide recycled products and stationary.
  • Introducing an office policy to help employees reduce waste.
  • Using less packaging with products and reusing material such as envelopes.

Preparation for Reuse

The next option after preventing general and other waste is to reuse what you have already. This can be something as simple as using two sides of paper before sending it to waste or refurbishing equipment that can either be sold on or reused. If you’re having a clear out at home, this would entail sorting out material that can either go to the local charity shop or to friends or can be sent for recycling. In the office, it can mean that when hardware needs to be replaced it is cleaned up and sold on rather than being sent straight to landfill.

Recycling of Waste

The next step in the waste hierarchy is recycling. We have become a lot better at this over the last decade or so as laws and processes have come into place to help. This includes most of us having recycling bins that can be collected by local councils and large facilities that take material such as paper, plastic and metal and transforms them into new products. Recycled paper is now much more prevalent than it used to be and is produced at a lower cost than paper made from ‘virgin’ sources.

Other Processes

When material cannot be reused or recycled, then there are a few other options to landfill that are available nowadays. This includes the incineration of waste to produce heat and power that can be used for the local community. There are also processes such anaerobic digestion which are becoming popular, particularly for food and agricultural waste.


The key to the waste hierarchy is ensuring that we send less and less to landfill. For all materials that cannot be disposed of any other way this is the final solution. In the UK we have dramatically reduced the amount of waste we collect and send to landfill sites. Specialist licenses are need to operate this sort of facility and the type of waste that ends up here is highly regulated.

Follow the waste hierarchy and you can help make a real impact on the environment. Businesses have to do this by law but we should all, as householders, keep the hierarchy in mind when we come to sort out our waste.


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