A waste policy should aim to protect the environment and human health, while reducing the use of resources. The waste hierarchy recognises that some techniques of processing waste are more sustainable than others, and that the available approaches can hence be ordered into a hierarchy of priority.
In 2008, the EU Directive 2008/98/EC established a legal framework for treating waste in which it introduces a five-step waste hierarchy. Waste prevention, is the preferred option, followed by reuse, recycling, recovery including energy recovery and as a last option, disposal.
In 2018, an amendment to the directive further strengthened the waste hierarchy by prioritising prevention, re-use and recycling above incineration and landfilling.
- Waste prevention concerns measures to reduce the quantity of waste, and the content of harmful substances in materials and products.
- Reuse means any operation by which products or components are used again for the same purpose as they were conceived
- Recycling converts waste materials into new products, materials or substances, generally by extracting the useful materials.
- Recovery refers to waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials to fulfill a function. The most common operation is energy recovery, where the waste is burned to generate heat or electricity, which would otherwise have required oil or coal.
- Disposal is the least sustainable waste management action and refers typically to landfills.
Often the waste hierarchy is referred to as the “3 Rs”, which identify the choices, in order of preference, as “reduce, reuse, recycle”. Other forms of the waste hierarchy may have more than 5 steps, by splitting up steps into more specific parts.