Zero Waste Hierarchy


For More Information:Richard Anthony, 858-272-2905,
Gary Liss, 916-652-7850,

Zero Waste International Alliance adopts Zero Waste Hierarchy

The Zero Waste International Alliance (ZWIA) adopted the first ever Zero Waste Hierarchy of Highest and Best Uses at its Board of 
Directors meeting on March 20, 2013 as part of Zero Waste Week in Berkeley, CA.  Richard Anthony, President of ZWIA said, “The Zero Waste Hierarchy is a higher standard than the Pollution Prevention Hierarchy because it looks at the entire carbon life cycle of materials, as well as the embodied energy used to extract virgin resources, manufacture a product, and transport a product to market. Our National Affiliate in Canada for the ZWIA Zero Waste Business Program, Zero Waste Canada, was particularly concerned about how the Pollution Prevention Hierarchy is being used to promote incineration over landfilling. This Zero Waste Hierarchy prioritizes resource management activities that will move communities into a Zero Waste Circular Economy.”

Gary Liss, ZWIA Certification Chair said, “This Zero Waste Hierarchy starts with the premise of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, then highlights that recovering energy is only acceptable using systems that operate at biological temperature and pressure, such as sustainable biodiesel from used vegetable oils or biologically or chemically producing ethanol from urban wood, biosolids, manures or food scraps.  The Zero Waste Hierarchy says that landfilling is the last step, and only if discarded materials are sorted at the landfill to get out all remaining recyclables and toxics, then biologically stabilized before burial.  Prior to landfilling, materials should be analyzed and researched to determine what products and packaging should be redesigned in the future.  The Zero Waste Hierarchy says don’t burn mixed solid waste, tires, wood from mixed construction and demolition debris, or biosolids, as high temperature systems volatilize heavy metals and produce dioxins and furans.  The Zero Waste Hierarchy says avoid all high temperature systems, such as Mass Burn, Fluidized Bed, Gasification, Plasma Arc, and Pyrolysis. The Zero Waste Hierarchy also says don’t support bioreactor landfills, don’t give recycling credit for Alternative Daily Cover (ADC) or ‘beneficial use’ of processing residues to build landfills, and don’t allow recycling toxic or radioactive wastes into consumer products or building materials.”


Zero Waste Hierarchy of Highest and Best Use


The Zero Waste Hierarchy describes a progression of policies and strategies to support the Zero Waste system, from highest and best to lowest use of materials. It is designed to be applicable to all audiences, from policy-makers to industry and the individual.  It aims to provide more depth to the internationally recognized 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle); to encourage policy, activity and investment at the top of the hierarchy; and to provide a guide for those who wish to develop systems or products that move us closer to Zero Waste. It enhances the Zero Waste definition by providing guidance for planning and a way to evaluate proposed solutions.

Zero Waste Definition

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use. Zero Waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them. Implementing Zero Waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.”[1]

Guiding Questions

Rethink:  What has led us to our present linear use of materials and thus, what needs to evolve to move towards a closed  loop model? How do we re-design systems to avoid needless and/or wasteful consumption?

Reduce:  What supports the use of less material and less toxic material?

Reuse:  What supports the better use of those products we already have in ways that retain the value, usefulness and  function?

Recycle/Compost:  How do we ensure materials are put back in the materials cycle?

Recover:  What was salvaged from mixed waste?

Residuals Management:  What is still left and why? What do we need to take out of the system that should not have been circulated in the first place? How do we manage what is left in a flexible manner that continues to encourage movement towards Zero Waste?

Unacceptable:  What systems and policies encourage wasting and should not occur?



*Guiding Principles

Closed Loop Systems:  Design systems to be closed loop rather than linear in their use of resources

Close to Source:  Processes to occur as close to the source as practical

Conservation of Energy:   More energy can be saved, and global warming impacts decreased, by reducing waste, reusing products, recycling and composting than can be produced from burning discards or recovering landfill gases[2]

Do Not Export Harm:   Avoid the export of toxic or potentially toxic waste or materials to areas with lower environmental safeguards and avoid the export of materials with limited, undefined recycling markets that will be either landfilled or incinerated in another region

Engage the Community:   Promote changes and systems that work with communities to facilitate meaningful and sustained participation, increase understanding, and influence behaviour change and perceptions

Highest and Best Use:  Creating and keeping materials and products for a use as high on the hierarchy as possible and in the useful loop as long as possible. Keeping materials from being downcycled where the number of future uses or options are limited

Information & Improvement:  Collect information on systems and use as feedback for continuous improvement

Local Economies:  Support the growth and expansion of local economies (production, repair, and processing) in order to reduce greenhouse gases from transportation, improve accountability, and increase repair and parts opportunities

Materials Are Resources:  Preserve materials for continued use and use existing materials before harvesting virgin natural resources

Minimize Discharges:  Minimize all discharges to land, water or air that may be a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health, including climate changing gases

Opportunity Costs:  Consider opportunity costs of investments and ensure investments occur as high as possible on the Hierarchy

Precautionary Principle:  Ensure that a substance or activity which poses a threat to the environment is prevented from adversely affecting the environment, even if there is no conclusive scientific proof linking that particular substance or activity to environmental damage

Polluter Pays:  Whoever causes environmental degradation or resource depletion should bear the “full cost” to encourage industries to internalize environmental cost and reflect them in the prices of the products

Sustainable Systems:  Develop systems to be adaptable, flexible, scalable, resilient, and appropriate to local ecosystem limits



Zero Waste Hierarchy


1 Rethink Design and purchase products from reused, recycled or
sustainably-harvested renewable, non-toxic materials to be durable,
repairable, reusable, fully recyclable or compostable, and easily disassembled
2 Shift funds and financial incentives to support a Circular Economy** over the harvesting and use of virgin natural resources
3 Enact new incentives for cyclical use of materials, and disincentives for wasting
4 Facilitate change in how end users’ needs are met from “ownership” of goods to “shared” goods and provision of services
5 Support and expand systems where product manufacturing considers the full life-cycle of their product in a way that follows the Zero Waste Hierarchy and moves towards more sustainable products and processes. Producers take back their products and packaging in a system that follows the Zero Waste Hierarchy.
6 Identify and phase out materials that cause problems for Closed Loop Systems*
7 Facilitate and implement policies and systems to encourage and support Local Economies*
8 Re-consider purchasing needs and look for alternatives to product ownership
9 Provide information to allow for informed decision-making
10 Be aware of and discourage systems that drive needless consumption
11 Reduce Plan consumption and purchase of perishables to minimize discards due to spoilage and non-consumption
12 Implement Sustainable Purchasing** that supports social and environmental objectives as well as local markets where possible
13 Minimize quantity and toxicity of materials used
14 Minimize ecological footprint required for product, product use, and service provision
15 Choose products that maximize the usable lifespan and opportunities for continuous reuse
16 Choose products that are made from materials that can be easily and continuously recycled
17 Prioritize the use of edible food for people
18 Prioritize the use of edible food for animals
19 Reuse Maximize reuse of materials and products
20 Maintain, repair or refurbish to retain Value**, usefulness and function
21 Remanufacture with disassembled parts; dismantle and conserve “spare” parts for repairing and maintaining products still in use
22 Repurpose products for alternative uses
23 Recycle/Compost Support and expand systems to keep materials in their original product loop and to protect the full usefulness of the materials
24 Maintain diversion systems that allow for the highest and best use of materials, including organics
25 Recycle and use materials for as high a purpose as possible
26 Develop resilient local markets and uses for collected materials wherever possible
27 Provide incentives to create clean flows of compost and recycling feedstock
28 Support and expand composting as close to the generator as possible (prioritizing home or on site or local composting wherever possible)
29   Whenever home/decentralized composting is not possible, consider industrial composting, or if local conditions require/allow, anaerobic digestion
30 Recover Maximize materials recovery from mixed discards and research purposes after extensive source separation
31 If conditions allow, recover energy using only systems that operate at Biological Temperature and Pressure**
32 Residuals Management Examine materials that remain and use this information to refine the systems to rethink, reduce, reuse, and recycle in order to prevent further discards
33   Ensure minimization of impacts by means of biological stabilization of fermentable materials.
34 Encourage the preservation of resources and discourage their Destructive Disposal or dispersal
35 Plan systems and infrastructure to be adjusted as discards are reduced and its composition changes
36 Minimize Gas Production and Release** and maximize gas collection
37 Use existing landfill capacity and maximize its lifespan. Ensure it is Responsibly Managed.**
38 Contain and control toxic residuals for responsible management
39 Unacceptable Don’t support policies and systems that encourage the Destructive Disposal of organics and/or the destruction of recyclables
40   Don’t support energy and Destructive Disposal systems that are dependent upon the continued production of discards
41   Don’t allow the Incineration** of discards
42   Don’t allow toxic residuals into consumer products or building materials



Biological Temperature and Pressure:  The ambient temperature and pressure that occurs naturally without the use of added energy, or in any case not above 100C to change it such as anaerobic digestion


Circular Economy:   An industrial economy that is, by design or intention, restorative and in which material flows are of two types,

biological nutrients, designed to re-enter the biosphere safely, and technical nutrients, which are designed to circulate at high quality without entering the biosphere. Materials are consistently reused rather than discharged as waste


Closed Loop System:  A system not relying on matter exchange outside of the system, as opposed to open loop where material may flow in and out of the system


Destructive Disposal:  Discarded materials placed in a landfill or in an Incineration** facility


Diversion:   An activity that removes a material from Destructive Disposal


Incineration:   Incineration is a form of Destructive Disposal via combustion or thermal conversion/treatment, using temperatures above 100 degrees Celsius, of discarded materials into ash/slag, syngas, flue gas, fuel, or heat. Incineration includes facilities and processes that may be stationary or mobile, may recover energy from heat or power and may use single or multiple stages. Some forms of incineration may be described as resource recovery, energy recovery trash to steam, waste to energy, energy from waste, fluidized bed, catalytic cracking, biomass, steam electric power plant (burning waste), pyrolysis, thermolysis, gasification, plasma arc, thermal depolymerization or refuse derived fuel.


Minimize Gas Production and Release:  This means keeping out source-separated organics as much as possible and biologically stabilizing the materials that go into landfill. For existing landfill cells that already contain unstabilized organics, the gas production should be minimized by keeping out rainwater and not recirculating leachate. Minimize methane release by permanently capping closed cells with permanent covers and installing gas collection systems within months of closure (not years). Maintain high suction on collection wells and do not damp down wells or rotate off the wells to stimulate methane production. Filter toxins in the gas into a solid medium that is containerized and stored on site. Note that this is not considered a renewable energy.


Problematic for a Closed Loop System:   Materials that make it hard to recycle or compost the materials themselves or other materials. These may be contaminants for a material (like some forms of biodegradable plastics or stickers on fruit and vegetables) or materials that clog processing systems (like plastic bags).


Responsibly Managed Landfills:  Manage landfills to minimize discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health. This must include plans for closure and financial liability.


Sustainable Purchasing:   The purchase of goods and services that take into account the economic value (price, quality, availability and functionality) and the related environmental and social impacts of those goods and services at local, regional, and global levels.


Value:  The importance, worth, or usefulness of something that may be economic, social, environmental, or sentimental.



[1]  Prepared by Gary Liss,, with input from International Dialog in Berkeley, CA and adopted by ZWIA Board on 3/20/13. Originally based on Environmental Hierarchy of Waste Management & Energy Production Methods / Fuels / Technologies, Energy Justice Network, Mike Ewall,