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A Zero Waste hierarchy for Europe

The zero waste hierarchy in Europe

When conceiving the current waste class (1), waste management is about handling our waste with minimal damage to health and the environment. Although it is not binding, it has proven to be a good tool that can guide the transition to modern waste management.

However, the level of waste is limited because it only looks at things from an environmental perspective, that is, it does not consider social, economic, and logistics considerations, nor does it consider the need to promote the transition to circularity.

With the new thinking framework set by circular economy thinking, we believe that a new hierarchical structure is needed to change the way of thinking from waste management to resource management. This means that the driving force of the hierarchy should not only be the safe disposal of our waste, but also ensure that the value of our resources is retained in the economy for the next generation.

The figure shows the difference between the zero waste level and the EU waste level at the upper and lower levels, while it keeps the middle level ready for reuse and recycling.

Talking about value preservation basically means letting products and packaging stay in the economy longer, not as a waste of materials and products. In practice, this means that although the milestone of the current waste level is recycling, the milestone of our zero waste level is to protect the value of waste by designing the system.

This is why in the new hierarchy, we have transformed the most forgotten and underinvested level in the current hierarchy into the cornerstone of the circular economy in the next few years. Designing waste in the system by influencing consumption habits, rethinking business models, and designing it to be waste-free should be the main priority of EU economic and environmental policy and funding. Only the first level requires special legislation to deal with value protection rather than waste.

In a further hierarchical structure, we propose a new disposal method that is consistent with the current changes in resource management and energy structure decarbonization in Europe. In this sense, it replaces energy recovery carriers with cost-effectiveness and value protection, which is also linked to better energy efficiency, because compared to incineration and disposal (2), the energy intensity of reuse and recovery It's much lower, and the most important thing is flexibility.

The zero waste level has 7 levels, two are related to products and 5 are related to waste:

1. Reject, rethink, redesign

The first layer contains any activities related to preventing the generation of waste. Whether by designing a waste-free system or by stopping the commercialization of disposable items that can be easily replaced with substitutes.


Food delivery, take away food but can also be used in e-commerce, reusable packaging should be used in a closed-loop system. We can see examples in Repack, ReCircle and Freiburg Cup. In order to make this the new norm, we need progressive regulations.

For e-commerce reusable systems, such as RePack, it may become more competitive, if the extended producer responsibility (EPR) fee is ecologically adjusted to make reuse more cost-competitive than one-time use, or if regulatory agencies Set ambitious goals or collection rates for reuse of e-commerce packaging.

2. Reduce and reuse

Staying in the non-waste area, the second layer of the hierarchy solves the problem of expanding the market for old items that have not yet become waste, are still underutilized assets in our economy, or will become waste despite not losing their use value. The goal is to prevent them from being discarded, but to find a way to get them back into the economy.


In the food industry, Phoenix has developed a system for supermarkets to prevent food waste and make it available for consumption.

Ereuse has developed a system that not only prevents the generation of e-waste and extends the life of products and components, but also introduces blockchain technology to track future components, measure their performance and ensure that they are recycled in due course. End their lives.

3. Preparation for reuse

Entering the waste field, the third level of the zero waste hierarchy reflects the second level of the EU waste hierarchy: preparation for reuse reproduces the efforts to clean, repair and refurbish items that have become waste so that they become products again.


Refurbish white goods such as refrigerators to make them suitable for reuse.

4. Recycling, composting, anaerobic digestion

The fourth level of the hierarchical structure should ideally be the last choice for retaining materials in sustainable resource management, that is, converting separately collected waste into high-quality secondary raw materials. This level reflects level 3 of the current EU waste level.


Convert separately collected paper or cardboard into cellulose for new products or packaging. The conversion source converts the separated high-quality organic matter into a soil amendment (3) through composting and/or anaerobic digestion, thereby restoring soil fertility.

5. Material and chemical recycling

As explained, the zero-waste hierarchy differs from and complements the EU's hierarchy in its lowest level configuration. The EU waste classification system takes energy recovery as the next step after recycling, while the zero waste classification system prioritizes the extraction of valuable materials from mixed waste and discards in the classification process. This is more in line with the vision of circular economy. Circular economy basically keeps materials and resources in the cycle, while heat treatment is manifested as "resource leakage." The material recovery and biological treatment operations of mixed waste in a system with a high separation collection rate—as required by the new EU waste legislation—provide a cost-effective way to protect the value of resources while maximizing Minimize disposal.New technologies related to chemical recycling are also suitable for this level, as long as they deal with discards from the sorting process—rather than separately collected streams—and convert used polymers into new polymers.

6. Residue management

The current EU waste legislation is obliged to separate and collect waste streams separately, thereby allowing most biologically active waste to be transferred from residual waste. Through pre-biological stabilization, waste can be safely landfilled, fully complying with the landfill directive and related pre-processing obligations. Such systems can be designed to increase the amount of organic matter separated from the source and reduce the amount of residual waste. The transition that Europe will see in the next few years will largely depend on the success of advancing to a waste-free system through design-see levels 1 and 2-, you should see a reduction in residual waste and the need to adapt to new scenarios flexibly .

7. Not acceptable

The new hierarchy treats options that produce unacceptable lock-in effects that hinder transition, damage resources, and/or the environment as unacceptable. Unstable landfills, littering, and any form of mixed waste combustion or mixed combustion, whether with or without oxygen, should be part of the past, because they contradict the EU's decarbonization agenda and absorb the level of investment that should be targeted The highest level of the structure.

in conclusion

The EU waste classification system is not perfect, but it serves Europe well to minimize the environmental impact of our waste management activities. However, we are not fit to achieve the ambitious circular and sustainable development goals we set for ourselves.

We need new tools in the new era, and our zero waste hierarchy is a tool that can determine the correct priority for achieving European circular economy goals.

Note: The zero waste rating system was developed in cooperation with the Zero Waste International Alliance, of which the European Zero Waste Alliance is a member.


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