Back to UBQ blog

Get to Know the Zero Waste Hierarchy

      28 Aug 2022

We’ve all heard the saying, “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. These actions are meant to be done in that order: first, we reduce our consumption as much as possible; then we reuse what we can; and finally, we recycle what’s left over.


This is a simplified version of the waste hierarchy, or waste pyramid, which tells us the best way to manage our waste so we can preserve the most value in the materials. What all waste pyramids have in common is that they show the order of preference for waste management options so we can make the smallest impact on the environment and preserve the most value in the materials. We can think of this as a series of filters; the top level catches (or prevents) as much waste as possible, leaving less waste to move along to the second tier, and so on. However, in the modern waste hierarchy, there are often more than three possibilities.


The European Union (EU) Waste Framework Directive identifies five steps:
1. Prevention
2. Preparing for reuse
3. Recycling
4. Recovery: Includes incineration to produce energy
5. Disposal: Includes landfilling


The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) expands this even further, into seven steps:


1. Rethink/redesign
2. Reduce
3. Reuse
4. Recycle/compost
5. Material recovery
6. Residuals management: Biological treatment and stabilized landfilling
7. Unacceptable: Incineration and waste-to-energy


While these two hierarchies are similar, they do differ in certain respects, including the order of preference of landfilling and incineration. Both waste treatments cause significant environmental damage, and the choice is a matter of priorities and the details of the treatment. The EU pyramid prefers incineration with energy recovery over landfilling. Incineration with energy recovery has the benefit of potentially replacing fossil fuel-based energy sources, although in Europe energy produced by incineration is roughly twice as carbon intensive as the average grid energy. All incineration reduces land demand compared to landfills while also preventing landfill methane emissions.


The ZWIA pyramid, conversely, prioritizes a minimal degree of landfilling—but only after biological stabilization to address methane emissions, and partnered with a careful evaluation of the potential for future waste reduction—over incineration, which it deems “Unacceptable”. The reasons given are that incineration locks in demand for waste; the capital expense of building an incineration facility is only worthwhile if it continues to make money by burning waste. If the heat produced by combustion is used for energy, this also develops dependence in the energy grid.


UBQ’s Place in the Waste Pyramid


UBQ Materials was conceived as the recycler of last resort. In fact, UBQ technology was designed to up-cycle mixed residual waste that is aimed to landfill. Therefore, far from competing with existing recycling systems, UBQ complements it. We make a valuable thermoplastic material (called UBQ™) out of mixed residual waste, including all organics. Residual waste is the materials that were not collected by any recycling system—either because they are unrecyclable, it’s not economical, or there is simply no recycling or sorting systems in place. Accordingly, any materials left over that can be recycled using conventional methods (including PET, metals, and minerals) are removed from the residual and sent to recyclers before being converted to UBQ™. In accordance with the waste hierarchy, the highest and best use is prioritized for all materials.


UBQ’s place in the waste pyramid is at the bottom, by design—the lowest possible tier that allows for the reutilization of materials. The only alternative end-of-life treatments to mixed residual waste are those where waste is truly wasted, incineration and landfill. In the ZWIA waste pyramid, UBQ belongs in tier #5, ‘material recovery’. This tier is distinct from recycling and composting and applies only to the mixed residues that are left over after those processes.


Applying the Waste Hierarchy


We at UBQ Materials heartily support all efforts to prevent the creation of waste in the first place, including redesign, reduction, reuse, repair, and refurbishment. We don’t advocate buying things you don’t need, even if those things do contain UBQ™. If you do need an item, we encourage you to borrow it or buy it secondhand if possible. If, and only if, it is necessary to buy a new product, this is when we recommend paying close attention to the materials—their recycled content, the carbon footprint if the information is available, and their recyclability when the product’s useful life is over. Many members of our team diligently follow these principles in our daily lives.


Once products have been manufactured, used, and disposed of, they enter the waste management system. All materials that may be recycled or composted, depending on local capabilities, should be sorted and collected separately to reduce contamination and maximize the recovery of valuable materials. It’s only after this that UBQ steps in—requiring no behavior change from residents or consumers—and gives new life to the materials that we’ve treated as worthless for far too long.

Do you know someone who might be interested in this post? You should share it:

Think you’ve seen it all?

Join our newsletter and receive updates on UBQ events, news and developments in the sustainability world

Have you read these articles yet?

Next article

10 Companies Reducing Methane Emissions