Thursday, March 2, 2017

The hierarchy of waste

CGEE Student Voice
Waste Diversion
by Jenni Abere

Everyone has heard the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." In fact, you've probably heard it so often that it's become meaningless green-washing to you.

However, you may not have heard that the order of these three words is essential. That is to say: Reducing is preferable to Reusing, which is preferable to Recycling. Think about it with regards to a plastic water bottle. The best option is to reduce the number of plastic bottles you need, by drinking tap water and using a reusable water bottle. The next best option would be to reuse the plastic water bottle several times before you dispose it. Then, when you do dispose it, make sure you recycle it.

Another important thing to note when distinguishing reducing from reusing is that for every pound of waste you produce, there are seven pounds of waste "upstream" in the manufacturing in the item. Therefore, it is better to have only one reusable water bottle as opposed to three, even if none of them ever get thrown away.

The simple "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" concept has been expanded into a more complete hierarchy of options when it comes to waste.

The upside-down triangle represents that most waste
should is preventable. Disposal is the last resort. 
This hierarchy is as follows, from most preferable to least preferable:
1) Prevent
2) Minimize (Reduce)
3) Reuse
4) Recycle or Compost
5) Energy Recovery (Incineration or Waste to Energy)
6) Disposal (Landfill)

This hierarchy has real policy implications. Minnesota bases its waste management policy on this model, and the state incinerates much more waste than other states. "Energy recovery" and "waste to energy" are certainly terms that greenwash the practice of burning garbage, but the process has some advantages over direct landfilling, such as improved water quality.

If incineration were actually the second-to-last resort for all waste, the impact on air quality would not be as severe. I think incineration's place above landfilling has to be put into a context where the majority of waste has already been prevented or diverted, so that the reliance on incineration and landfilling in minimal.

The other thing to note here is that "prevention" is distinguished from "minimization." I conceptualize this as more of a structural change. Going back to the water bottle explanation, prevention might be an institution deciding to no longer sell bottled water.

A recent change at Hamline means that receipts no longer print automatically, preventing a great deal of paper waste and chemical pollution in the environment. This is a great example of prevention.

This waste hierarchy is a great way to expand on the simplified "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" paradigm, both in your own day-to-day decisions and for institutional and policy changes.

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