Waste Hierarchy: Who's on Top in the Game of Trash?

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Back in January, we asked our readers what New Year’s resolution they were sticking to the most. The results of that poll got us talking. It seems as if more people focus on recycling than reusing or reducing. Though most people liked a mix of all three, when they did get specific, recycling was the preference.

We wondered why this was the most common method people used to deal with trash. Then it came to us: Do most people know about the Solid Waste Management Hierarchy?[poll id=”117" type=”result”]

(crickets chirping)

….based on your silence, we think it’s safe to say “no.” Why would anyone, anyways? It is rather an insider term. But the concept it touches on is extremely important to know when making decisions about how to manage your waste output in an eco-responsible way.

The Bottom Line

According to the U.S. EPA, in 2006, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash. That’s about 4.6 pounds per person, every day. Of this 251 million, 82 million tons of it was recycled. This recycling saved “the energy equivalent of more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline.”

Obviously recycling makes a huge impact on waste stream diversion. But what if we could generate half that much trash, and still recycle 82 million tons of it? This would be even better! That is where the Waste Hierarchy comes into play. If we send less trash out, and keep our recycling rates rising, we can really get somewhere. But how does an individual or a household do this? Lets follow the chart and find out.

Image: Fairfax County Solid Waste Management


The first level of waste management is source reduction. According to the Fairfax County Government, “source reduction is the preferred method of waste management since it prevents the generation of waste in the first place.” You not only can apply this towards reducing your daily trash output, but also your energy and water use. The best way to start this process is to do a trash audit and make a reduction plan.


Reuse is simply the act of finding a second (or third, or tenth or hundredth) use for a product to prolong its life. Reuse is an important step after you’ve already reduced, but before you are ready to recycle.

Most of us reuse everyday without realizing it. Any time you buy or sell a product secondhand, such as from Craigslist, eBay or Goodwill, you are providing an additional use for this product, while at the same time, not requiring another one to be created.

To really get in the habit of reusing, focus on:

  • Reusable shopping bags
  • Lunch boxes and Tupperware containers
  • Buying in bulk
  • Borrowing from others instead of purchasing
  • Rethinking your “trash” – you may be able to make something new out of that old desk


Recycling is the process of taking a product at the end of its useful life and using all or part of it to make another product. The U.S. EPA estimates that 75 percent of our waste is recyclable, which goes well beyond what you toss in your recycling bin at home or at school.

Recycling reduces our waste sent to landfills, and making new products out of recycled ones reduces the amount of energy needed in production.

Though the act of recycling is environmentally based, you can do some harm if you don’t pay attention. Make sure your actions are as green as your outcome.

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