Zero-Waste Hierarchy — What It Is and How You Can Implement It in Your Everyday Life

The zero-waste hierarchy is a pyramid of priorities and guidelines designed to reduce waste, and ultimately pollution. Up until recently, it was based on 3 simple R’s — Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. However, according to ZWIA’s (Zero Waste International Alliance) most recent Zero Waste Hierarchy 7.0, there are seven R’s, i.e. steps that we need to follow toward a greener future:

  • Rethinking/Redesigning
  • Reducing
  • Reusing
  • Recycling/Composting
  • Recovery of Materials
  • Residuals Management
  • Regulation (Unacceptable)

As a sole individual, you may not be able to change the world with your own two hands. After all, you can’t make large corporations suddenly switch to a closed-loop system and stop producing waste altogether. However, every type of contribution matters, regardless of how small it may be. Besides, if we all put in a bit of effort, we can make profound changes happen.

How You Can Take Part in the Zero-Waste Hierarchy

Based on its first four stages, here are tips to help you implement the zero-waste hierarchy in your life and make the world a better place, at least a little bit:

1. Rethink

Be mindful of your belongings, as well as the things you throw away. Think about why and how you’re throwing away each item, and if there’s any way to surpass that. Similarly, when it comes to buying, make sure to ask yourself whether you really need that item and if it’s really worth the waste. 

Despite the common misconception, zero-waste is not just about recycling; it’s about changing your philosophy and breaking free from the materialist mindset and the dependence on goods and possessions.

Of course, you don’t have to go to extremes. You can start by checking out some of your local second-hand and thrift stores instead of choosing large commercial retailers each time. 

In addition, you can find plenty of products with recyclable packaging or even better, products that are recyclable themselves. Whenever you can, buy from and support companies that promote sustainability and the circular economy. 

For instance, instead of a cheap plastic toothbrush, you can get yourself a sustainable toothbrush made from bamboo. In fact, you can find biodegradable alternatives for most household disposables, such as cotton swabs, sponges, laundry detergent sheets, etc.

You should also rethink your eating habits. Fruit and vegetables are a much healthier and much less wasteful option than takeout, so you might want to include more of those in your diet. 

2. Reduce

For starters, reduce your carbon footprint by limiting your driving. If you can, walk or cycle to work or take the bus. Instead of each person taking their own car, you and your co-workers can carpool. 

Secondly, reduce your food waste by buying only what you really need, which typically involves planning your meals ahead. In addition, instead of throwing away your leftovers, you can donate them.

To cut back on your waste production, you should also avoid using plastic bags, cups, and other disposables. When you can, bring your own bags, containers, and utensils. 

For instance, you can bring your own thermos to the coffee shop and kindly ask the barista to use it instead of the non-recyclable paper cup. They probably won’t make an issue out of it. Also, you might want to stay away from food that comes in plastic wrappers. Consider cooking more often and avoid ordering takeout when you can. 

If you do end up with some non-recyclable food packaging, such as egg cartons, don’t worry —  you can donate them to your local farmers. 

3. Reuse

Try to hold on to items as long as they are usable. If possible, repair things instead of buying substitutes. And what you can’t repair, give away to somebody in need. For instance, you can donate old clothes and toys to a local homeless shelter, the Red Cross, etc. 

Aside from that, you can repurpose things that you no longer have the use for. As an example, you can make storage bins out of glass jars, turn shabby old T-shirts into rags or dusters, or use old toothbrushes for scrubbing. Also, consider upcycling or repurposing outmoded, disused, or non-functional furniture instead of declaring it trash instantly.

You can even save food scraps and use them in other dishes. For example, chicken bones, carrot peels, and celery tops can make for a mighty fine stock. Moreover, potato peel chips can be a delicious treat on their own. 

4. Recycle

First things first — you need to learn recycling 101. In other words, you should know exactly what items go into which category, as well as what can be recycled and what can’t.

Obviously, you should always look to buy recyclable products, or at least products with recyclable packaging. Find the local recycling bins and make it your habit to recycle as much of your trash as you can. However, make sure to separate everything correctly to prevent cross-contamination. 

In case there aren’t any recycling bins nearby, be the one to take action. Talk to your neighbors and see if you can get them installed in your neighborhood. Doing so will surely encourage everybody to recycle, as they won’t have to walk as far and put in as much effort as before. 

In addition, if you aren’t too much of a cook, you can compost the leftover food scraps and turn them into food for plants. 

The Bottom Line

The zero-waste hierarchy is there to help guide us toward a zero-waste future. Although we’re still far away from achieving all of our sustainability goals, that shouldn’t discourage us — it should motivate us to try harder. And by “us”, we mean “all of us”, from huge corporations to individuals themselves.

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