What is the waste hierarchy?

image of the five layer waste hierarchyThe waste hierarchy establishes a priority order for waste management and is laid down in EU Directive 2008/98/EC and applied in the UK through various other pieces of legislation.

The aim of the hierarchy is to encourage producers and processors of waste to consider the most environmentally friendly method of disposing of waste and to use that wherever possible in preference to other disposal methods.

As shown on the left, the hierarchy applies five descending options waste producers should consider when disposing of waste. There are linked sub-pages that provide more detail about each of these levels, but, in brief, they are:

  1. Waste avoidance or minimisation –steps taken before waste is created;
  2. Reuse – the use of material that might otherwise be considered waste, sometimes by a third party, without any significant changes to the material;
  3. Recycling – the processing of waste material into other materials, often used instead of raw materials in the production of goods;
  4. Energy capture or recovery – the use of waste materials to generate heat or light energy often, but not always, through incineration; and
  5. Disposal – disposal by any other means often, but not always, landfill.

It is important to note that landfill may not always be the worst disposal method as all relevant factors need to be taken into account including, for example, the impacts of chemicals, energy or water needed to process waste in recycling operations.

Businesses producing waste should consider where their waste sits in the waste hierarchy and whether they can, or should, take steps to achieve a higher level treatment of their waste.