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A Hierarchy of Waste Reduction and Diversion

A Hierarchy of Waste Reduction and Diversion

Jan 29th 2021

You're probably already convinced that an important component of sustainable packaging is that it can avoid the landfill. Landfill diversion is important for several reasons: landfills emit noxious greenhouse gases, leach toxins, harm the health of local communities, and are a graveyard of wasted and often very valuable potential raw materials.

We are often asked: What is better, composting or recycling? What about Waste to Energy plants? If you live near a WTE facility, should you more readily landfill your goods or is it still better to recycle? These are all great questions.

Luckily, many experts have researched these questions thoroughly and put forth a fairly commonly agreed upon Hierarchy of Waste Diversion. This particular image is from New Hampshire's Department of Environmental Services, but most such organizations have similar guidance.

The hierarchy of waste reduction reminds us that the first step is to stop the waste from ever happening. Source reduction involves two important "R's": "Rethink" design to minimize materials and "refuse" or don't buy items that you don't really need.

Once you are faced with an item for disposal, consider two more "Rs": "Repair" and "Reuse" if at all possible. 

There comes a time in almost every materials life that it is truly done and can't be used again. 

Recycling is the best ecological option. Why is it better than composting and waste-to-energy? Because recycling most efficiently turns an existing material back into something useful, extending the useful life of those raw materials and reducing the need for natural resources to otherwise be extracted.

After recycling (and for items that can't be recycled, such as food waste, manure and grass trimmings) composting is the next best option as it allows the rich nutrients of these items to help replenish our soils.

Where neither recycling nor composting are a viable option, waste-to-energy comes next, allowing the raw materials to - at the very least - be converted into something valuable.

Incineration (with no energy recovery) and long-term landfilling are at the bottom of the pyramid.

It is worth noting that sending something to the landfill is better than:

  • Littering an item, ultimately leading to it ending up in the ocean or our soils
  • Wish-cycling, or recycling an item that is not actually accepted by the operation you give it to. This just makes things harder and more expensive for them, and weakens the overall recycling supply chain.
  • Composting an item that isn't compostable, leaving composting operators to have to sort out these materials or be left with contamination in their output, which makes their output harder to sell and degrades our soils long term.