Introducing the New Waste Management Hierarchy

14 July, 2019

Have you heard the news? There’s a new Waste Management Hierarchy in town. 2008 step aside, 2019 arrived with more knowledge, better practices, and a wealth of sustainability talent around the world to lead us to a better future. Concepts such as ‘zero waste’ and the ‘circular economy’ have made massive headway and are both mentioned in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Earth’s biggest ever project for a more liveable world. It’s all looking quite positive.

In this article, we are going to talk to you about the new waste hierarchy.

What is the waste hierarchy?

The old waste hierarchy was a tool released in 2008 as part of the EU Waste Framework Directive. It lists the order that waste management should occur in, from most to least preferable, in order to minimise environmental impacts. It looks like this:

  • Prevention
  • Preparation for reuse
  • Recycling
  • Other forms of recovery
  • Disposal

Why is a new one needed, and who made it?

‘Zero Waste Europe is the European network of communities, local leaders, businesses, experts, and change agents working towards the same vision: phasing out waste from our society.’ That’s ZWE in their own words.

ZWE have kindly spent a great deal of time, research, and mental energy in creating a new waste hierarchy. One of their main objectives for this project was to draw attention away from waste and place the attention onto resources. It is believed that this simple change can create a mindset transition from waste management to resource management. Instead of considering how to safely dispose of waste, we should be considering how to safely preserve the resources involved, for both the current economy and future generations. Their new hierarchy looks like this:

  • Refuse/Rethink/Redesign
  • Reduce and Reuse
  • Preparation for Reuse
  • Recycling/Composting/Anaerobic Digestion
  • Material and Chemical Recovery
  • Residuals Management
  • Unacceptable

The focus is on resources

With the focus now being put on resources, the priority has to be keeping resources in use for as long as possible. This is the thinking behind the top two tiers ‘Refuse / Rethink / Redesign’ and ‘Reduce and Reuse’. How do we stop waste being produced in the first place and create cultural and behavioural changes to stop things like single-use plastic items? How do we incentivise businesses to make their products better or more intelligently packaged? How do we encourage businesses to pursue zero-waste goals?

ZWE believes that EU policies should work harder to explore these areas and make businesses act more intentionally.

Preparation for reuse?

There are a million and one blogs and guides on how to turn waste into something useful, just search for terms like ‘refurbished’ and ‘upcycled’. This step defines ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and will play a huge role in e-waste management over the coming years. Essentially, it means cleaning, repairing, or upholstering something to make it reusable again, instead of letting it become waste.

Recycling has been pushed down?

11 years ago, recycling seemed like the best method available to us, but we’ve learned a lot in the time since, and we are at a point where design and culture change will play a greater role than our ability to handle existing recyclables. Recycling, composting, and anaerobic digestion will come to be seen as the last resort for waste, rather than incineration and landfilling.

Recovery and ‘unacceptable’

ZWE uses the term ‘material and chemical recovery’ as an alternative to ‘energy recovery’ because there are more things we can do with non-recyclable wastes than simply incinerating them. Things like RDF (Refuse-Derived Fuel) and material extraction can have positive environmental benefits.

At the bottom of the new waste hierarchy is ‘residuals management’, which refers to the truly few remaining items that have no other hope for better resource management. ZWE is clear to point out that this does not include landfills. Landfills must end.

Sustainable Development Goals and how this supports a circular economy

EU member states agreed on the Circular Economy Package in 2018, a group of new laws designed to make Europe more resource-efficient. The CEP also helps Europe move in the right direction in regards to the Global Sustainability Goals, which are very important to me and the work Imvelo is doing.

The CEP introduced 65% municipal recycling targets by 2035 and targets a Circular Europe, seeing waste primarily as a resource. Moving up the new waste hierarchy should be the priority and also developing the mindset that prevention is the key to resource efficiency and reducing waste’s environmental impact. The key is not generating waste in the first place, so rather than manage waste, we must learn to manage resources. We must build and use new tools for a new world and new priorities.

What do you think? Will a new waste hierarchy help us?

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