The Zero Waste Hierarchy: The Key to Making Eco-Friendly Decisions | the ReFab Diaries

Guest post: Shannon Bergstrom

The more we know about a product, the better we can assess if it falls in line with our eco-efforts—its production method, what it is made of, the company’s values, etc. And one tool that can help with our evaluation process, as well as assist in assessing our everyday habits, is the zero waste hierarchy.

The zero waste hierarchy is a peer-reviewed and internationally accepted model set out by Zero Waste National Alliance (ZWIA). It expands upon the 3 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and consists of 7 levels that are in order of priority. 

Below you will find a breakdown of each level of the hierarchy and learn just how simple it is to apply to everyday decisions and use to evaluate your habits. 

1. Rethink / Redesign

Do I need it? If the answer is no, it is best to move on. 

Is there an alternative to buying? If you do need it, you may want to consider borrowing it from a friend or rental place if it will only get used occasionally or for a short period. Ultimately, you should also check if you already have something that can do the same job as the desired item. Alternative ideas that fall into this category include shopping secondhand to help save textiles and other useable items from the landfill or using a toy library instead of buying new toys for your kids.

Is there a sustainable substitute? For items that you have decided that you cannot make do without and must own, look to reusable or sustainable alternatives. For example, you may want to use dishcloths over throw away sponges, compostable toothbrushes, or give bulk shopping a whirl to cut down on packaging. 

2. Reduce

How much of this do I need? Reducing the amount we buy is the best way to avoid throwing out excess, especially food waste. Be mindful of how much produce you buy, put some thought into how you store it, and consider meal planning using recipes that use similar ingredients to use herbs and vegetables in their entirety. Alternatively, you can also freeze excess for later, or share with a friend or neighbor. Even when using products that are already in your home, be mindful of how much you use. 

Am I being wasteful? Waste doesn’t just apply to food and products, but resources as well. Deciding to cut your shower time by a couple of minutes can save water. To save energy, make sure you are turning off your lights and unplugging electronics when they aren’t in use. 

How long will this last? When bringing new items into your home, aim for quality to ensure their longevity. The longer they last, the less you will have to buy, which will help preserve resources. 

Can this be continuously recycled? If you choose items made from materials that can be recycled infinitely, like glass and aluminum, they could theoretically never end up in a landfill. Plastic, on the other hand, can only be downcycled, which means it loses quality each time it is recycled and eventually ends up in the garbage.

3. Reuse

Can this be reused? This is where upcycling comes in! For example, your glass food jars may be empty, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t still useful. They can be used to organize beads, display reusable makeup pads, or store dried goods.  

Can this be repaired? It is always best to repair items you already own to extend their usability. This may include mending clothes, reupholstering furniture, or bringing electronics to a repair shop.

Can this be repurposed? If it can’t be repaired, look for other uses for the item. Worn-out clothing can get cut up to make cleaning rags and other items can be upcycled into decor. Alternatively, the item may also be useful to give “donor” parts to broken items. This is especially true for electronics. 

4. Recycle / Compost

Is this recyclable or compostable? If an item is no longer useable, recycle or compost it. This helps contribute to a circular economy, which may be the answer to slowing down the unsustainable rate we are harvesting resources. 

5. Material Recovery

Is there a way to recover materials? This one often falls outside everyday decisions, but this refers to maximizing materials recovered. Upcycling items that others have either thrown to the curb or recycled could fall under this category.

6. Residual Management

What is in the garbage? Examine your trash to identify areas where your household could be making improvements to reduce waste. Ask yourself why certain items are in the garbage and brainstorm ways to move forward in the future to reduce waste.

7. Unacceptable

Is there food waste or organics in the garbage? If so, ask yourself why they aren’t being dealt with by using recycling programs and composting.

The Smaller Zero-Waste Pyramid: The 5 Rs

It is important to note that the zero waste hierarchy laid out by the Zero Waste National Alliance is a guide for both individuals and businesses, so you may not be able to relate fully to a few levels. Therefore, another hierarchy that is worth mentioning since it is aimed more toward individuals is the 5 Rs by zero waste advocate, Bea Johnson. Johnson’s zero waste hierarchy is Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (compost). This smaller pyramid is often easier for individuals to follow and equates to the top 4 tiers of the larger zero waste hierarchy discussed above. 

No matter which zero waste hierarchy you go with, you will be able to see exactly where your everyday habits and decisions fall. This can not only help you identify areas that could use improvement but also parts of your lifestyle already ready well on their way to being zero waste. Remember, zero waste isn’t a quick day trip—it’s a lifelong journey. And chances are you will be rerouting a few times before you find the perfect path for you and your family!

Author Bio 

Shannon Bergstrom is a LEED-accredited, TRUE waste advisor. She currently works at RTS, a tech-driven waste and recycling management company, as a sustainability operations manager. Shannon consults with clients across industries on sustainable waste practices and writes for Zero Waste.

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