What is the waste hierarchy?

waste hierarchy

Correctly managing and reducing waste has never been more important. Single-use materials such as plastic have extremely negative effects on the planet’s biodiversity as well as human health, our planet, animals, and human health. 

While we cannot move to a completely waste-free society overnight, we can do our best to reduce and manage waste better. This is where the waste hierarchy comes in, which helps organizations and individuals better manage their waste in a manner that is kinder to the planet. 

What is meant by the waste hierarchy? 

The waste hierarchy is essentially a conceptual framework to help you rank your waste management decisions at both an organizational and an individual level. It does this according to the best practices for the environment. Naturally, with that in mind, the best option is to prevent the creation of waste, and the least preferred option is to dispose of waste in landfill sites. 

The framework encourages reuse, recovery, and recycling before final disposal. The aim of the hierarchy is to encourage us to rethink our relationships with waste. It categorizes waste into a five-tier inverted pyramid based on the best approaches for the planet. 

The waste hierarchy replaces our traditional waste model with the three Rs – reduce, reuse, and recycle, and expands this into a five-step process. The more preferred waste management actions remain at the top of the inverted pyramid, while the least preferred ones lie at the bottom. The emergence of life cycle thinking in waste management policy was what led to the arrival of the waste hierarchy. 

Waste hierarchy stages 

As mentioned previously, the waste hierarchy includes five stages, with the most preferred waste management methods at the top. Below are each of the stages broken down further.

  • Prevention: this is the first stage of the waste hierarchy and the most preferred option. Essentially, it refers to the idea of reducing and preventing waste from being created in the first instance. This could involve creating products with waste-free designs.
  • Reuse: the first of the 3 R’s, the next stage is reusing products and materials where possible before they become waste. This is considered the next best option to prevent waste from occurring in the first place. Under this stage, items can be refurbished or repaired.
  • Recycling: this is the next stage and is considered the most eco-friendly method for disposing of waste. Recycling transforms waste into new products and items, therefore, reducing the number of raw materials needed. Most items can now be recycled, including everyday products like wood, glass, paper, cardboard, plastics, and metal.
  • Recovery: the next best option if the above is not possible is recovery. For example, if waste cannot be recycled, it could be possible to recover energy in terms of ‘waste to energy’. This process incinerates non-recyclable waste to create electricity. Waste to energy is another way we can move away from fossil fuels and reduce our carbon emissions. Another method here is composting, which transforms organic waste into nutritious food for plants.
  • Disposal: the final stage and the least sustainable in the waste hierarchy is disposal. It is considered the last resort when the other options are not possible.


It’s apparent we are dealing with a waste crisis, and this is only accelerating the climate emergency. Therefore, learning to reduce and manage our waste is absolutely essential to safeguard the health of our planet and all living on it. The waste hierarchy allows us to easily do this by sharing the most preferable and least preferable options in regard to environmental impact. 

Bronagh Loughlin

Bronagh Loughlin

Bronagh is the CEO and Lead Journalist at Purpose Content Studio, which provides purpose-driven brands, publications, and organisations with impactful, journalistic content, so they can spark positive change.

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