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Empowering Our Communities To Redesign

From the 3Rs to the Zero Waste hierarchy

Have you heard of the 3R, Reduce, Reuse Recycle? This was the first waste hierarchy that was popularised. Even Jack Johnson wrote a song about it, see:

It is true that recycling should be the last step in the waste hierarchy but unfortunately in Europe still 60% of the waste goes to landfill (37%) and incineration (23). And it has been like this since quite some years now. Also, the current EU legislation and incentives don’t seem to be working to move waste up the hierarchy and for this reason many directives will be revised in the next years.

Image from European Commission.
EU Waste Hierarchy. EC.

One of the secrets of the success of the Zero Waste practices is to follow a more ambitious waste hierarchy than that of the European Union. Still today most incentives in the EU go to the lower part of the hierarchy, which is causing that waste moves from being landfilled to being incinerated.

The board of the Zero Waste International Alliance (in which Zero Waste Europe participates) met in March 2013 to define the steps of a more detailed and effective waste hierarchy which focuses on designing waste out of the system instead of trying to perfect bad ideas such as incinerators or landfills.

Following this hierarchy allows to effectively phase out waste, save energy, create new jobs and sustainable business opportunities. The experiences of Zero Waste municipalities around the world are a living prove of it.

ZW Hierarchy

Zero Waste Hierarchy of Highest and Best Use (1)

From Highest and Best Use to Lowest/Worst Use

Reduce and conserve materials
Refuse – Encourage producers to provide products or packaging that limit waste or emissions.
Return – Set up systems that require producers to take back products and packaging that create wastes or emissions.
Reduce toxics use – Eliminate toxic chemicals use; replace them with less toxic or non-toxic alternatives.
Design out wasting – Identify why materials are discarded and redesign the system to be more efficient and no longer discard those materials.
Reduce consumption and packaging – Use less; buy less and with less packaging; avoid disposables; bring your own.

Encourage cyclical use of resources and shift incentives to stop wasting
Shift government funds or financial incentives (at any and all levels) from supporting harvesting and use of virgin natural resources to support the circular economy.
Government and businesses should implement sustainable purchasing that support social and  environmental objectives.
Ensure incentives are in place for cyclical use of materials and disincentives in place for wasting (policies, research funds, regulations, etc)
Set up systems to encourage local economies.(for example. use of proximity principle, marketing support, policies, incentives, social and environmental purchasing practices, information exchanges, etc.)

Manufacturers design products for sustainability and takeback
Design to be durable, to be repairable, to be reusable, to be disassembled, to be fully recyclable, from reused, recycled or sustainably-harvested
renewable materials designed for easy disassembly.
Label products to identify who has made it and what it is made of
Minimize volume and toxicity of materials used in production.
Lease services and products rather than just sell products to customers.
Take products and packaging back after they are used, and reuse, or recycle them back into the economy or nature.

      Reuse (retain value and function)
Reuse products.
Repurpose products for alternative uses (e.g. old doors made into walls; old photos and scrap metal into art).
Repair to retain value and usefulness.
Remanufacture with disassembled parts.
Dismantle to obtain parts for repairing and maintaining products still in use.
Encourage thrift stores, used building materials store, garage sales, flea markets, and charity collections.
Encourage or allow licensed recovery of reusable goods from tipping areas of discards collection and processing facilities.
Provide incentives to takeout customers to bring their own containers, coffee cups and bags.
Organize household hazardous waste swap meets.
Recycle discards safely, efficiently and locally:
A) Inorganics (little or no carbon)
Build only “Clean” Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and sort source separated materials at such MRFs.
Recycle all inorganic materials (e.g., soils, metals, glass and ceramics).
Downcycling is lower priority (e.g., recycling single-use products into 1 time uses or making mixed glass into sand).
Develop local markets and uses for all recovered materials, including Resource Recovery Parks, Residual Research Centers, and business clusters to reuse, recycle or compost products and
packaging for highest value and efficiency.
Use existing “Dirty” MRFs only to pre-process mixed discards before burying in landfills, as Dirty MRFS do not benefit generators & produce lower quality materials.
B) Organics (carbon-based)
Edible food to people first; animal feed second; compost or digest the rest, back to land as compost or digest for fuel depending on where nitrogen is needed most locally.
Promote on-site composting by homes and businesses.
Use lower tipping fees to create clean flows of plant debris, unpainted wood, other compost feedstocks.
Compost yard trimmings, discarded food and food-soiled paper in aerobic windrows and place organics back in soil.
Use in-vessel systems for organics in built-up urban areas.
Maintain source separation for highest and best use of organics.
Combine source separated organics with bio-solids only if biosolids have been tested to ensure they will not contaminate end products and they are not applied on food crops.

Regulate disposal, dispersal, or destruction of resources
Ban materials or products that are toxic or that cannot be safely reused, recycled or composted.

Recover Energy/Bio-fuels only 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.
Landfilling is the last step.
Materials sorting for recyclables and research for design purposes.
Biological stabilization before burial
Require insurance to cover post-post-closure repairs.
Plan systems to be flexible to be adjusted towards Zero Waste with changes in waste stream as waste is reduced.
      Not Acceptable
Don’t support bioreactor landfills
Don’t burn mixed solid waste, tires, wood from mixed construction and demolition debris, or biosolids. High temperature systems volatilize heavy metals and produce dioxins and furans. Avoid: Mass Burn, Fluidized Bed, Gasification, Plasma Arc, and Pyrolysis.
Don’t give recycling credit for Alternative Daily Cover (ADC) or “beneficial use” of processing residues to build landfills.
Don’t allow recycling toxic or radioactive wastes into consumer products or building materials.


(1) Prepared by Gary Liss,,, with input from International Dialog in Berkeley, CA and adopted by ZWIA Board on 3/20/13.

Download the ZW Hierarchy in PDF

Catalan Zero Waste network launches pilot bottle-deposit project in Cadaqués

When waste has a value littering disappears and recycling skyrockets. This is in a nutshell what the deposit system for packaging waste is about; one pays a deposit when buying the drink that will refunded when the used packaging is brought back to the store.

Cadaqués, the municipality where universal artist Salvador Dalí lived and worked, is the first municipality in Spain to try a Deposit System for packaging waste. The Catalan Zero Waste strategy is the platform from which the Retorna Foundation and the Fundació Catalana per la Prevenció i el Consum Responsable launch this initiative.

Between 15 April and 30 June, the Catalan town will be using a Deposit and Return System (DRS) pilot project for beverage containers.

Cans and plastic bottles of less than three litres of soda, water, juice and beer will have a five-cent deposit which will be refunded when the package is returned at any of the 10 partner establishments.

The pilot project opens a way to prevent the elimination in landfill, incineration or littering of 5.5 million beverage containers, out of the 9 million which are consumed every day in the Spanish region of Catalonia.

The aim of the project is demonstrating the feasibility of a recycling option that already works successfully in more than 40 countries and regions worldwide and will coexist with the current system of roadside containers which has shown its clear limitations to recycle packaging.

Why this pilot experience?

The current system of Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging in Spain is based on an extreme interpretation of the European Packaging Directive. Whereas in this directive it is adviced to implement a deposit system for packaging –and countries such as Germany, Sweden, Finland or Estonia already do it-, Spain decided to turn the exception into the rule and pass a law in which the packaging producer is not anymore responsible for the waste they place in the market but only of the waste that is separately collected. The result is a system that only collects 35% of beverage packaging for recycling when in Germany with the deposit system they achieve 98% collection rate.

The director of the Waste Agency of Catalonia, Josep Maria Tost, explained that the pilot project of Cadaques is aimed at finding solutions for the future. “In Cadaques, no more cans will be abandoned in the village or in the environment,” he added

Merce Girona, president of the Foundation for Waste Reduction and Responsible Consumption, said: “The pilot test comes at a perfect time now that Catalonia is planning the new General Waste Management Programme 2013-2020, which should provide new tools for waste management, such as Return Systems”.

It is surprising that a country like Spain with more than 25% unemployment and that depends so much on tourism can afford to throw most of its packaging waste to landfills and incinerators. The experiences with deposit systems prove that they are capable of creating new jobs, reduce treatment costs for each piece of packaging collected, lower the collection costs to municipalities and diminish the environmental impact. Once again, Zero Waste makes more economic, environmental and common sense than traditional business models.

The question at the end of the day is who is responsible for the waste, the European legislation and the Catalan Zero Waste network say the producer should be responsible for all waste they place in the market –and not 1/3 of it as it is today in Spain-. Hopefully this pilot project is the beginning of a new way of understanding producer responsibility in Spain.

For more information and press material see:





Rossano Ercolini, president of Zero Waste Europe 2013 wins the Green Nobel award

The Goldman Environmental Prize, considered to be the “Green Nobel”, has been awarded to Rossano Ercolini, leader of the Zero Waste movement in Italy (Rifiuti Zero) and president of Zero Waste Europe during the 2013 gala celebrated in San Francisco.

“It is an honour to be awarded with the Goldman Prize. I consider it to be a recognition to 20 years of work, first to oppose the construction of a nearby incinerator and later to build an alternative Zero Waste solution first my hometown of Capannori and later in Europe.” said Ercolini.

An elementary school teacher, Rossano Ercolini began a public education campaign about the dangers of incinerators in his small Tuscan town that grew into a national Zero Waste movement. Today he continues to teach his pupils while chairing Zero Waste Europe, a network organisation that brings together international NGOs, local Zero Waste groups and more than 200 municipalities.


“In Italy we have managed to build an alternative to the traditional burn or bury model that still reigns in Europe; today 123 municipalities in Italy –covering 2 million people- are going towards Zero Waste, with realistic strategies and tangible results. Zero Waste Italy is now running a national citizen initiative to collect signatures in favour of a Zero Waste law for the whole country. Zero Waste is starting to be a reality”.


Capannori is a town whose citizens now recycle 82% of the waste but also generate less waste per capita than the average Italian or European town. Back in 2008, Capannori was the first in Europe to declare the Zero Waste goal for 2020; since then a number of measures have been implemented to reduce, reuse, separately collect, recycle and make the remaining waste very visible so that it can be designed out of the system.


“We hope the European Union takes note of our best practices and approves legislation that paves the road to a Zero Waste Europe. This means passing laws that:

  • design waste out of the system by making safer, more durable, repairable and recyclable products,
  • change from the current practices of subsidising big and inflexible waste treatment infrastuctures to supporting flexible and scalable solutions following the priorities of the European waste hierarchy,
  • implement landfill and incineration bans and taxes,
  • reward energy savings of recycling at least as much as energy generation from waste recovery or disposal,
  • propose ambitious prevention & recycling targets.


“The throw-away life-style is threatening the future of our offspring; Zero Waste offers to our children hope for a future free of toxics, landfills and incinerators” concluded Ercolini.


About the Goldman Environmental Prize

The Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals. For additional information about the Prize and previous winners visit


Kick off of the Citizens Initiative for a Italian Zero Waste Law 2020!

Legge Italiana Rifiuti Zero

Capannori was the first European town to adhere the Zero Waste goal for 2020, will Italy also be the first EU country to pass a ZW law?

On March 27 the Draft Citizen Law on Zero Waste for the whole of Italy was presented to the Italian court. The citizens initiative aims at collecting 100,000 signatures (a minimum of 50,000 is necessary to be legally acceptable).

In order to organise the collection of signatures 14 citizen committees have been created and 6 more are underway. If you want to sign please click here to see where is the closest place.

The proposal for a Zero Waste law aims at a total reform of how the waste is collected and treated in Italy and is based upon; sustainability, environment, health, jobs and participation.

The collection of signatures has started on April 2nd and all political parties have been invited to support a Zero Waste law and expand the success of the growing number of Zero Waste communitties in the country.

Zero Waste Italy