21 Nov 2023

Written by

Joan Marc Simon, Director-Founder at Zero Waste Europe

Is the European Waste Hierarchy wrong?

Consumption & ProductionWaste PolicyZero Waste Europe - general

Everybody has heard about the reduce-reuse-recycle slogan – Jack Johnson even made a song about it! 

The legislative version of this slogan is the Waste Hierarchy, which was first introduced in EU legislation in 2008. While not legally-binding, this Hierarchy indicates what is usually the most environmentally-sound treatment option: as the song goes, first reduce, then reuse, and only then recycle. 

But did you know that there is a single-use lobby version of the song? It goes like this: Recycle – Reuse- Reduce!

EU waste legislation is almost entirely about waste management. The most notorious attempts to work on reduction were the Single-Use Plastic Bag Directive in 2014 and the Single-Use Plastic Directive in 2019. Both were extremely successful initiatives, very well received by EU citizens, and equally opposed by the same single-use industry that, these days, declares its devotion to recycling and hate against reuse. It is worth recalling that this single-use industry that today fights for recycling is the same that, a few years back, was fighting against recycling targets, deposit systems, and other necessary tools. Evidence does show that they tend to embrace the right things – but only years later than the rest of the world… 

The issue is that single-use industry lobbies have decided to go against the waste hierarchy against established science and they declare that it is wrong to prioritise reuse over recycling. Some are a bit less radical and call for complementarity between reuse and recycling, which is something one could agree with if only both options were given a chance – i.e. if its supporters would not be asking to kill reuse targets-.

It is not the first time the single-use lobbies go against the Hierarchy: in the ’90s and 2000s, they were very vocal about prioritising incineration over recycling of packaging. The result of their success is visible to us all: decades of growing volumes of waste generation in packaging, lots of money wasted, and more packaging waste than ever being burned.

Looking at the history and the track record of those proposing to depart from the Waste Hierarchy today, let’s be very sceptical about such claims – If nothing else, these claims come from groups with clear conflicts of interest. Their business model depends entirely on single-use packaging, and corporate profits seem to be the real reason to ask all of us – particularly policy-makers – to ignore science.

We live in a system designed and optimised for single-use packaging and a throw-away economy. It works for the industry because it allows them to externalise costs, but it doesn’t work for the planet and the people living here. Yet, it is true that reuse will not make sense until we build the proper legal framework and infrastructure for it to reach economies of scale and be able to show what is capable of. This is why the European Commission chose some concrete packaging categories to start this transition, instead of mandating reuse across the board from the get-go.

Let’s be factual: reuse and recycling must be complementary for two reasons. First, because reusable packaging sooner or later reaches its end of life and should be recycled; and, secondly, because we have a long transition ahead of us before we can think about completely replacing single-use packaging. Single-use packaging will still be with us for many years. It should all be collected and recycled. However, for the claim on complimentarity to be credible, it is critical to build a legal framework that provides legal certainty and allows reuse to start walking.

Asking for complementarity without giving reuse it the same chance is like saying you love your two children equally, but only feeding one of them.

To sum up: 

  • The waste hierarchy is still correct as it is; reuse is better than recycling.
  • The single-use lobbies have not gotten many things right in the last decades – and it doesn’t look like they are getting it right this time either.
  • Complementarity is great, but only if it is genuine and not a buzzword. 

Ah – and the song sounds better with reduce first and recycling last.