The waste hierarchy: Reduce & re-use before you recycle

I posted this vid about re-using plastic bottles on FB today and my dear, beloved Maddy made the excellent and pithy comment, “Just stop buying them”.

Maddy is entirely correct.

‘Recycling’ has become increasingly popular over the last decades and, as a long (long!) time greeny, I initially felt that was a Very Good Thing. However, recycling only has value when materials are made into new and affordable products which are then purchased by consumers. When this doesn’t happen the whole exercise becomes pointless.

This is why the waste hierarchy is important


The best, easiest and most sustainable way to REDUCE waste is to avoid making any in the first place!

As Maddy said, just stop buying. Do you really, truly need to buy that thing? Really??? In the case of food items, yes, you probably do – but even then there are things to consider:

  • make sure you’re not buying more food than you can use before it goes bad
  • Freeze fresh items when you can so they’ll last longer
  • avoid excess packaging
  • and, while we’re at it, buy local, seasonal food as often as you can

Food aside, I bet you could usually do without those new purchases. You might want to consider a more minimalist lifestyle. Or, in a lot of cases, you could move right onto the 2nd level of the waste hierarchy…

RE-USE items and materials as much and as often as possible.

It is a great thing to re-use or upcycle waste items in creative ways – as in the vid above or like this. Once they already exist in the world, re-using waste items is far better than throwing them away. You don’t even need to be that creative. I re-use old jars as food storage containers – and I have a set of former honey jars which are the perfect size to soak a portion of overnight oats for breakfast.

Avoid the unnecessary waste of ‘one use’ items. Instead, choose reusable water bottles, sandwich bags and other containers for your lunch. Get one of those reusable coffee cups or buy a flask.

Sashiko stitching

Buy better quality clothing when you can. It may cost a bit more but it’s likely to last longer (and bear in mind, very cheap clothing is likely to have been made by poorly paid women and children!). The ‘make-do and mend’ ways of the past were incredibly sustainable. Try repairing worn and holey clothing with patches and embroidery. If you’re clever and crafty why not give Japanese sashiko stitching a try?

Even gift giving can be more environmental and less wasteful. And remember, unwanted items, still in good condition, can always be donated to charity!

The above are just a few examples of re-use in action but the opportunities are endless. Please search online for inspiration before throwing anything away.

Only after trying all of the above should you consider RECYCLING as an option.

Reclaiming resources from waste products is vitally important in a sustainable world. However, as noted above, recycling only has value when items actually are recycled (rather than just burned) and, most importantly, made into new and affordable products which are then purchased by consumers. I always choose recycled items when I can but, even though I actively seek them out, I rarely see recycled goods in the shops.

There will be various reasons for this but I suspect the main one is that consumers are not buying them. People seem happy enough to recycle (so long as things are arranged to cost them no effort at all!) but if they don’t purchase the resulting recycled products the whole exercise becomes pointless:

  • Recycling centres can’t sell-on reclaimed material if no-one is buying it
  • Producers need your support. They can’t make quality recycled items if no-one buys their products
  • Shops will not stock recycled items if you as consumers don’t ask for them.

So, as a conscious consumer, please search out products made from recycled materials and ask for them when you don’t see them in-store.

Somewhere between recycling and recovery is COMPOSTING

As noted right at the start, you should try to avoid food waste as much as possible. However, things like vegetable peelings and eggshells need to go somewhere. Food waste should never go to landfill since it produces methane gas as it rots.

If you have space in your garden, get yourself a compost bin for food and garden waste. It’s very easy to maintain. I have been known to become obsessed with composting techniques but really, nature can just be left alone to get on with it. Over time your organic waste will break down into a wonderful rich, dark substance – perfect for nourishing your garden.

If you can’t have your own bin your local council may offer food waste collection. They may use the waste to make compost of their own, or they could utilise it as bio-mass to burn for energy or turn it into bio-fuels.

This leads onto the final steps in the hierarchy…

RECOVERY of energy from waste

There are a variety of methods used to convert non-recyclable waste into energy – such as heat, electricity or fuel. The intention is that only the smallest possible volume of waste should require to go to LANDFILL.

It really is possible to live a life of minimal waste. The interweb is at your fingertips – all the help and advice you need is online! Just take a look.

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