You may have heard people discuss the 3 Rs or the 5 Rs. The 3 Rs are typically Reduce, Reuse, Recycle whilst the 5 Rs are Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Recovery and Rot. Each of these things refers to the waste hierarchy.
The waste hierarchy is a list of processes to tackle waste, starting with the most favourable down to the least preferable. In all versions of the waste hierarchy the best option is to reduce. Reduction is preventing waste being generated in the first place. This could mean refusing items such as free samples/promotional items at events to help reduce demand, or looking at your purchasing habits and cutting back on things you don’t need. Deciding what you really need can be difficult but here is a figure to bear in mind – according to George Monbiot’s research manufacturing and consumption account for more than half of the UK’s carbon emissions (when you take account of the fossil fuels whose use we commission in other countries). Enjoying life with less stuff by prioritising experiences can really make a difference to the planet.
The diagram above shows the standardised waste hierarchy as published by the UK Government. If you can’t refuse an item your next best bet is finding the item in a form that is reusable for example buying milk in refillable glass bottles rather than plastic. Our Zero Waste York Facebook group can help you find local businesses that provide refills and other wastebusting solutions.
After reuse, recycling is the best of the worst options as it allows recovery of materials. Then you have other recovery – this includes “energy from waste facilities” (which we have covered in another blog), composting and anaerobic digestion. Finally disposal includes landfill and incineration without energy recovery.
The waste hierarchy is legally binding for businesses and organisations covering all processes including manufacture, distribution and end of life disposal. Yet, we certainly have a long way to go to become a zero waste society which eliminates waste and makes best use of resources without harming the environment. Applying the waste hierarchy in our homes as well as work places, and supporting national campaigns such as the Friends of the Earth’s on plastic, is a good step towards it.