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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  1. It seems to me that there is ALOT of effort on the Reduce side and ALOT of effort on the Recycle side thru landfill. But the Reuse is the most underdeveloped area. Sure everyone is switching to canvas shopping bags, but there is alot more to do. What about all that stuff in your garage that isn’t trash but you don’t use. How much clutter in your life could be used by someone else?

  2. How about us that are at apartmnets/housing where we only have a dumpster to put our trash and don’t even know what company is used to pick it up or what happens with it? My 18 year old son and I hate throughing away eveything but our cans, glass and plastic bottles our recycling center takes. I was raised in northern cal. and recycled in the sixtys.I raised my son the same way. Now that we are in the city-LA, we have little choices with no car. We use cloth bags for grocs. and filter our water instead of buying bottled like we used too. I teach group and my company is trying to go as green as they can, I would love to know more things I can teach my clients and the company that I work for.

  3. I understand many people have limited space and feel overwhelmed by keeping recyclable trash in their home. This means everytime one goes out, they take their recyclables with them. If you ride a bike, take just the small amount you can tote with you everyday. Make a point of taking routes that go by recycle drop offs. My husband and I, to encourage others to recycle, have started picking up our neighbors’, family’s and friends’ recycling and dropping it at recycling centers. Not everyone is willing to put in the small amount of work necessary to recycle, but that is when the good neighbor needs to pitch in. Afterall, we all suffer the consequences.

  4. In my blog, http://www.goinggreenaccidently.blogspot.com, I talk a lot about the three “Rs” of responsible living, reduce, reuse and recycle. While recycling gets the lion’s share of air time, I try to focus on reusing as well. I use old glass or plastic bottles as my “sharps” container for my diabetes blood testing lances, old plastic Chinese take-out boxes as lunch boxes and an old brief case as an artsy magazine “rack” for my library.

    I sympathize with the person living in an apartment complex and the difficulty of recycling there. I’m fortunate in the community I live, my complex can actually participate in the curbside recycling program. Of course, this site is an amazing tool to find where I can take my other recyclables.


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  6. I moved to this Sr Living complex (60 units) 2/1/2 years ago. All units are 1 bedroom, over 62 years only.

    About a year ago, I was able to push through the idea of recycling with bins on each floor, large receptacles in the basement area. We have a cooperative maintenance guy who is terrific but management had to agree. We started with plastic, aluminum and tin. Recently we have added paper (which was a huge concern). Next we work on glass.

    I do not understand why any apt. complex with a “green” bone in it’s body couldn’t do the same. They pay for the trash hauling and this makes less pickups. Besides, it’s the right thing to do! Coming here from a house forces you to give away LOTS of things and be even more simple in your lifestyle. I love the resale shops and buy most of my clothes there (I still work as a professional counselor.)

  7. My favorite ways to reduce trash include reusable lunch boxes/tupperware, cloth bags, and buying in bulk.
    My favorite reuse ideas include Habitat’s HomeStore and using old t-shirts for rags.
    I’m so glad you tackled the waste hierarchy issue because for every 1 garbage can we fill on our curb, 70 trash cans have been filled at a factory to make the stuff we toss. For more info on the 5 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle, rot, & rebuy), you can check out my blog http://recycleraccoon.wordpress.com/the-5-rs/.

  8. I work as a municipality’s Recycling Coordinator. I have a tiny budget of 50 cents per capita. With that 50 cents and being only one person, I admit, my message has to be kept simple and easily digestable. Right now, and for the next 5 years, I see my message focusing on “recycle, recycle, recycle.” Our “success” is currently measured in terms of weight of recyclables. Meaning we are successful when more tons of recyclables are collected this year over last.

    Eventually, we hope to see this our increase in weight of recyclables taper off and remain stagnant. At that point we’ll see that people have understood and comply with the recycle message. Our success will then be measured by a reduction in total trash and recyclable weight set out. In other words,we want to see residents disposing (whether trash, green waste, or recycalbes) of less material each succesive year. This is when we’ll focus on the reduce reduce reduce (and reuse and rebuy) message.

    We, due to lack of funding and warm bodies, must embody the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) mentality – hence my single message of recycle, recycle, recycle. If there was some way to get some additional funding and to get some warm bodies (even volunteers are hard to come by these days) in here to help me – gosh, we could do more, but you must realize, your government is funded by YOU. So, in the end, if you leave it up to the government, you will have a big expensive government, is that what you want? Do you want your government to be the driver? Its up to each and everyone of you and who you elect to be your representatives.

  9. I would like to open a store that has a variety of shampoos and other products that could be available in bulk(by the barrel, etc.) where you can bring in your containers and by products by the OZ. Or LB. I find reducing to be my biggest hold up personally. I also wish that standing in a store and un packaging my products right there was an option. Why couldn’t some packaging be returned to companies for reuse?

  10. I sure wish someone or someones could start a list of ideas on how to reuse. I have been an avid recycler since mid 1970’s. I take my useable stuff to Goodwill and reuse as much as I can. But there seems to be a dearth of ideas of how and what one can reuse. A lot of suggestions on other websites are either silly or only useable for once, not when one has resusable stuff on a repetitious basis. Sure wish there were creative people who could make creative lists of reuseable stuff.

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