Reframing the Waste Hierarchy
Let’s play a quick round of trivia.
Clue: This phrase is an alliteration, made up of three waste reduction strategies in order of impact.
If you answered “reduce, reuse, recycle,” you’re right!
The ubiquitous “Three Rs” (aka, the Waste Hierarchy) is our go-to phrase when we talk about waste reduction. While it’s a catchy phrase, there’s a lot more to consider when it comes to reducing waste. This month, we’re on a mission to reframe the waste hierarchy.
What is the Waste Hierarchy?
The waste hierarchy is a simple way to illustrate the impact of waste reduction actions. It’s usually depicted as an upside-down triangle with three or more layers. The most preferred and impactful actions are weighted more heavily and are at the top. The least preferred are at the bottom. These are the actions we turn to when more preferred actions are not possible.
Unfortunately, we’ve found that the waste hierarchy is often misinterpreted. Some people think all three Rs have the same impact; or, even more troublesome, that recycling is the best way to reduce trash. It’s not! While recycling is important for the circular economy and reducing our use of virgin materials, it’s not the end-all-be-all solution to our trash problem.
Why We Need to Care
Massachusetts is facing a waste crisis. Did you know that about 30 percent of the trash generated by MA residents and businesses is currently landfilled? The rest is incinerated at five in-state waste-to-energy combustors, or shipped out of state. The problem is that our in-state landfills are set to reach capacity by 2030. In less than 10 years, there will be a lot more trash leaving the state by rail or by truck, both of which could negatively impact environmental justice communities. It could also mean higher prices for trash disposal.
There’s also the issue of emissions. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, waste reduction can lead to significant greenhouse gas emission reductions. Based on the EPA Waste Reduction Model (WARM), if Massachusetts achieves its 2030 waste reduction goals (30% reduction from 2018 levels), it could prevent over 1,700,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent from entering the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of removing the emissions from 370,000 passenger vehicles or conserving nearly 200 million gallons of gasoline. Holy emissions-savings, waste nerds! 🤓
Reframing the Waste Hierarchy
We know “Rethink, Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Rot, Recycle” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like the shorter “reduce, reuse, recycle,” but they’re important concepts. And they are a reminder that we have options when it comes to waste reduction.
Let’s take a closer look at what we mean.
The term “Rethink” is pretty subjective, but it has to do with how we think about waste in general, which, let’s be honest, is often not at all. The idea is to consider that everything we have has to go somewhere at some point. Very often our default is an unthinking toss in the trash or recycling. “Rethink” is about shifting that buy-use-toss paradigm to a more thoughtful approach that includes many more options.
We can start with rethinking our habits. Maybe there’s a way to repurpose something broken to be used in a new way. Maybe there’s an option to buy something in bulk to reduce single-serving packaging. Maybe there’s an opportunity to replace single-use items (like plastic bags and water bottles) with reusables. Maybe you can find what you need secondhand. Maybe you can give your old toaster to a neighbor when you get a new one (as long as it still works!). The good news is “rethink” is up to you. Get creative!
To refuse is easy. It just means saying “no” to unnecessary stuff (even when it’s free!). Some examples of things that are easily refused are single-use packaging, disposable utensils, toys in kid meals, excessively packaged produce, straws…the list goes on.
The great thing about refusing is you get to avoid having to make decisions about what to do with something when you’re done with it. We love making fewer decisions!
Reduce focuses on using less whenever you can to avoid creating trash from the start. There are tons of ways to reduce, but the number one way to reduce the amount of trash you generate is to consider whether you really need something before you buy it in the first place. Other reduction strategies include buying in bulk to avoid single-serving packages, meal planning to avoid buying food that you won’t end up eating, and donating gently used items to give them a second or third life. Reduce doesn’t mean do without, but we’ll admit it isn’t always the most convenient form of waste prevention. That said, its position on the waste hierarchy means that every decision we make to reduce has a meaningful impact on waste reduction.
Reuse is a simple idea with great impact. Reuse conserves resources by keeping things out of the waste stream for as long as possible. Luckily, reuse is becoming normalized as things like reusable water bottles, storage bags, shopping bags, straws, and even reusable coffee pods are trending (and hopefully, will continue to do so!).
But reuse is bigger than replacing single-use items. Reuse on a large scale is happening across the state through furniture banks, secondhand stores, gifting groups like Buy Nothing and Freecycle, mattress resale, tool lending libraries, little free libraries, swap shops, and reusable take-out containers! If this kind of thing excites you too, take a minute to read our All For Reuse and Reuse For All newsletter.
You can check Beyond the Bin to find donation outlets for items that can be reused.
Repair is a waste reduction strategy often overlooked because it’s not as convenient as it once was. It can also sometimes be cheaper to buy a new product than replace an old one – sad but true! That said, when you can repair something, you are conserving resources by extending the useful life of a product and – speaking from experience – it’s super satisfying! 😊
There are a lot of repair shops still around that will happily fix your broken refrigerator, laptop, or sewing machine, so don’t forget to look around before replacing. If you’re interested in learning to repair things yourself, you can find how-to guides and video tutorials online. There are also organizations like Repair Café and Fixit Clinics that host events where volunteers assist people in fixing everything from lamps to record players to lawn mowers. Those events are often held in libraries, so keep an eye out for local announcements!
The good news is the repair movement is growing and there are many ways to tap into it. There is huge potential for our electronics, clothing, appliances, and furniture to last for years with the right mindset, a set of tools, and a repair guide.
Rot is the R-word for composting. Did you know that 22% of our trash is uneaten food and food scraps? We can reduce our waste by buying and preparing food more mindfully, but we can also let it rot in lieu of putting it in the trash. Fortunately, composting is having a bit of a renaissance. Many cities and towns across the state are leaning into composting food scraps. Some sell backyard bins at reduced prices for the DIYers, some use public collection bins, some pickup curbside, and others contract with a compost vendor who services residents for a fee. All of these are great options!
If you’re interested in learning more about food scraps collection in your community, check your city/town’s website. To learn about this topic in general, you can read It’s Thyme to Talk Organics, a newsletter we wrote in 2021. The great thing is, lots more communities are picking up curbside since we published that newsletter! 🎉
Recycling is one of our favorite topics, but we’ll keep this brief. Recycling keeps valuable material out of the trash and conserves resources. When we recycle, we make it possible to process used materials into feedstock for new products. While it is not as impactful as the other Rs, recycling is the last best option before incineration or landfilling. To learn about the recycling process in Massachusetts, take a look at our Recycling Road Map and our newsletter archive, which hosts several deep dives into recycling.
Cutting down on waste is a collective effort and none of us can do it alone. We also need the help of corporations and manufacturers (who make the stuff!) if we’re going to see the greatest impact. But by considering what will happen to the things we buy and choosing to incorporate these waste reduction strategies into our decisions, we’re already making a difference!
Have you heard? Recycle Smart MA has recently launched Quiz 2.0! If you mastered the first one, it’s time to level up your recycling knowledge with more challenging questions, now available at RecycleSmartMA.org/quiz-2-0.
City of Methuen
Less trash, resharing our resources, and an increase in recycling – what more could we ask for from a Recycle Smart Partner? The City of Methuen is determined to transform their solid waste and recycling program and they are not holding back.
Over the past year, the city has made big changes to their program. They’ve started an automated curbside collection program which set a limit for trash and improved access to recycling; held in-person community meetings; sent mailers with guides on waste reduction strategies; started a new social media campaign for recycling; and worked with local newspapers to spread the word to residents. The city also updated their website and share familiar resources like the Recyclopedia, Smart Recycling Guide (in English AND Spanish), and link to our quiz and newsletters. The results so far: a whopping 28% decrease in trash (thousands of tons) and a 30% increase in recycling!
What’s next for Methuen? Mayor Neil Perry, Environmental Planner Joe Cosgrove, and their team will continue to educate residents while also focusing on reducing contamination in the recycling (AKA, keeping non-recyclables out of the bin). The plan is to hold workshops and meetings alongside media outreach to get contamination under 10%. Congrats to the team in Methuen for the successes so far; we can’t wait to see what comes next!
📚 What We're Reading
- Fixit Culture is on the Rise, But Repair Legislation Faces Resistance – NPR
- Lithium Battery Fires Are Threatening Recycling as We Know It – Vice News
- Automakers now have to comply with MA’s Right to Repair law – TechCrunch
- Inside the ‘Buy Nothing’ Movement – Good Morning America (Video)
- Apple Backs California Right to Repair Bill in Major Policy Shift – CNBC
- The Ins and Outs of Recycling All of Those Supermarket Plastics – Boston Globe
- Megapaca Wants to Sell Used Clothing Back to Americans – Bloomberg
Happy (early) Fall! 🍂
The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP