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Recycling 101: The Ultimate Guide to the Waste Hierarchy

What It Is and How to Use It

Throughout our Recycling 101 series, we’ve delved into what and how to recycle. While recycling is one aspect of waste management and living a more sustainable life, it’s not the only – or the most important – part.

In fact, as we’ve discussed in this series before, recycling has a lot of issues. From contamination to lack of consumer understanding, recycling rates globally sit at around 9% – a far cry from ideal.

That’s where the waste hierarchy comes into play. This framework breaks down the best ways to go about waste management to get to a more sustainable economy and zero waste future. And, as you’ll note, recycling is far from the top.

What is the Waste Hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is a strategic framework of waste management principles. Designed as a pyramid, the waste hierarchy lays out the best ways (at the top) and the worst ways (at the bottom) to reduce and eliminate waste. It’s a helpful guide to follow if you’re working toward zero waste.

There are many different variations of the waste hierarchy, with more or less tiers, but they all generally break down the same things. Some are more designed as an easy resource for individuals, while others are more complex and geared towards waste management professionals.

While not a perfect system, the waste hierarchy is designed to help people focus on and implement changes at the top that have a larger impact on waste reduction.

Generally though, they look something like this:

Waste Hierarchy Illustration

What Do the Levels Mean?

It can be difficult to interpret what each tier means and how it can be used in everyday life. Below we've broken down what each tier is and a few practical tips for implementing them into your life.

Refuse + Reduce

The first tier on the waste hierarchy is refuse + reduce. This should always be the more preferential way to eliminate waste wherever possible. It may mean rethinking the way we use products, designing more efficient systems, and considering what we truly need and is beneficial to us.

Refusing means stopping waste at its source by declining products that are harmful to the planet or aren’t necessary. Reducing means cutting back on products that can’t fully be eliminated but can be mitigated in some ways.

Practical tips:

  • Invest in reusable cups and bottles to reduce single use plastic and takeaway coffee cups
  • Use bags you already have and refuse bags at the grocery store
  • Plan out meals and grocery shopping, so you never over buy food, reducing food waste on an individual level
  • Switch to more sustainable materials like glass and paper over plastic – this helps you reduce materials that cannot be recycled or reused (more on this below)


Avoiding products and packaging altogether is not always possible. Accepting this, reusing products is always the next best thing. Reuse is a big category of actions that may include repairing or maintaining products to the best of your ability and buying used over new.

Both on an individual basis and within our companies and communities, we should strive to reuse as much as possible. Doing so promotes a circular economy and helps keep things out of landfills, while also ensuring that we don’t produce more than needed.

Practical tips:

  • Reuse glass jars as food storage
  • Repair electronics instead of replacing them
  • If you’re moving, ask local stores for cardboard boxes for reuse
  • Buy used goods and clothing, instead of new


The next tier on the waste hierarchy is repurpose. When something can no longer be reused for its original purpose, trying to find a new way to use it – or parts of it – for another function, is the next best thing. It still prevents it from going to landfill and can often be just as useful in another function.

Repurposing is sometimes used interchangeably with upcycling, but they are slightly different. Upcycling is giving a product a face lift and using it in a similar way to the original product – like painting furniture. It’s still a great way to give new life to old products, but it’s not the same as repurposing. Repurposing is changing the purpose of a product completely to be used in a different way.

Practical tips:

  • Use old t-shirts as dusting rags
  • Repurpose wooden furniture into shelves or different products
  • Make a dog or cat bed out of old towels
  • Use paper towel and toilet paper rolls at arts and crafts supplies


Recycling, which includes composting food scraps, is often seen as an easy environmentally friendly thing to do. While we advocate for recycling and improving our recycling systems and material choices, it’s not the best, most sustainable way to reduce waste. In fact, it’s only one tier above dispose.

That’s because recycling involves breaking down a material and recreating it into something new. This can include melting down plastic, glass, or metal and reforming them into new products. It’s a very energy intensive process that takes a lot of work to do, though it’s still less energy intensive than producing virgin materials. Plus, while glass and metal are infinitely recyclable, plastic and paper are not and often require virgin materials to fully recreate.

This tier may also include downcycling, which is a different type of recycling. In this process, products are broken down and turned into a product of lesser quality or turned into something that cannot be recycled again. Nylon fabrics made from recycled bottles are an example of this.

Practical tips:


The lowest tier of the hierarchy, and the one that should be avoided as much as possible, is disposal. When all other alternatives have failed, disposing of something is the only option left. That’s because disposing of products either means throwing them in a landfill, having them incinerated, or otherwise dumping them in the natural environment in some way.

This can have a lot of negative effects on the environment from heightened emissions to destruction of habitats. If you’re working toward a zero waste goal, keeping disposal at below 10% is generally a good first goal. It may be impossible to completely avoid, but limiting the amount of waste we send to landfills and incinerators is the best and most sustainable option.

Wrap Up

Recycling is often people’s first introduction to waste reduction and minimisation. But as you’ve seen, the waste hierarchy lays out many steps you can take to reduce waste before even getting to the recycling stage.

Putting the waste hierarchy into practice as an individual, company, or society is a great way to work toward a more sustainable future. Small steps can help us achieve zero waste, but rethinking our systems and processes and using this framework to do so will help us see the best results.

Just starting on your Waste Hierarchy Journey?

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