Applying the waste hierarchy in your business

In order to make a significant reduction in the amount of waste that your business creates, a shift in perceptions is required. Instead of waiting until the moment of discarding an item to consider what to do with it, we need to start considering resource efficiency. 

By Lindsey Hall

Every day businesses are literally throwing away profit due to the waste they produce. Many are unaware of how significantly this impacts their bottom line. Others just don’t know how to make better use of their resources.

It actually costs your business twice to dispose of waste – once when you buy the products, and then again when you dispose of them. By becoming more efficient with the resources you use, and wasting less of them, the result is that you will reduce how much you need to purchase, and how much you spend on disposal.

Resource efficiency and the waste hierarchy

In order to make a significant reduction in the amount of waste that your business creates, a shift in perceptions is required. Instead of waiting until the moment of discarding an item to consider what to do with it – when the only options available are to dispose of it in the waste bin, or to recycle it – we need to start considering resource efficiency.

Resource efficiency is best explained through the waste hierarchy diagram. In it, resource management practices are ordered from the most environmentally beneficial, to the most damaging.

The waste hierarchy takes into account the impact of the different resource management options on climate change, air and water quality and resource depletion. And it also happens to be ordered by which practices will offer your business the greatest financial savings!

A better understanding of the waste hierarchy will help you identify actions that can be taken to make your business more resource efficient, and as a result, will save you money.

The objectives of your Waste Minimization, or Resource Efficiency plans should be to manage all of your business resources as high up the hierarchy as possible, starting with:


The very best strategy in order to generate the least waste possible is to prevent the use of an item in the first place. For example, your supplier delivers all goods to you in cardboard boxes. These are emptied and then crushed by your staff, before being taken to the cardboard recycling bins. So you’re recycling your packaging waste, which is good, right? Your recycling rate will look nice and high, as cardboard is bulky and needs regular collections, making your recycling vs. waste stats look good.

But why have the cardboard in the first place? Applying pressure to your supplier to consider alternative packaging can prevent that material ever entering your business. Goods get delivered in reusable crates; these are emptied as before, then loaded back on the truck (or last week’s crates are taken away if you can’t unload straight away). Your staff won’t have to spend time crushing loads of boxes and taking them to the bins, and your cardboard recycling collections can reduce in frequency – which saves your business both time and money.


Let’s use food waste as an example here. Implementing a system of quality control and stock management will considerably reduce the amount of food waste that a restaurant, hotel or bar produces.

New deliveries get checked for quality, with any damaged, or close to use-by date perishables rejected before they enter your kitchen. All food items are managed on a FIFO (first in, first out) system to reduce wastage during food storage.

These changes will have a direct positive impact on your food operation’s bottom line by not only reducing food waste volumes, but more valuably, increasing the proportion of purchased ingredients that get prepared into profit-making meals.

Check out our articles on how to reduce food waste in your restaurants, and how to perform a food waste audit, for more advice on increasing the efficiency of your food service operations. 


This requires a review of all materials used on site, asking the question “Can we use this item for something else when we’re finished with it?” For example, if your restaurant uses white linen tablecloths, when these have reached the end of their life as tablecloths, they can then be used as aprons for kitchen staff, or cleaning rags.  

If the item isn’t reusable, then the next question to ask is “can we swap out this item for one that can be reused within our operation?” For example, if your business provides staff or customers with single-use coffee or water cups, can these be substituted for reusable cups or mugs? Or if your laundry company collects from customers using single-use plastic bags, can these be replaced with multi-use crates or bags?

These changes can reduce your procurement costs by extending the usable life of your purchased items, at the same time as diverting materials from being disposed of.


Only once we’ve considered the first three steps, should we then think about what to do with the waste that we have left. In the higher rungs of the hierarchy, the materials we are considering are still valuable resources, not waste.

From this point on, our concern should be to recycle as much as possible.

Many businesses already have a recycling collection service in place for standard articles like paper, cardboard, and maybe cans and plastic bottles. But have you considered all of the wastes that your business generates and what other items it would be possible to recycle? If something’s not recyclable, ask the question “Can we substitute this item for something that can be recycled?”

If there’s a specific material that’s common to your industry, but hard to recycle (for example, used paints in the decorating industry) consider joining up with other local companies to create greater economies of scale. This makes it more worthwhile for collection companies to find a recycling treatment method for the waste.  


Right at the bottom of the hierarchy, we’re left with (hopefully only) a few materials that we can’t reuse or recycle, and haven’t been able to substitute out. Even though we’re now managing our waste in the lowest rung, there are still important decisions that we can make to ensure we’re selecting the least environmentally detrimental option.

Choose a waste contractor with the appropriate licences to safely manage your waste and ensure it is disposed of legally and securely, without damage to the environment. This is particularly important if you are disposing of ‘special’ or ‘hazardous’ wastes.

If possible, choose a contractor that disposes into an ‘Energy from Waste’ plant, rather than to landfill. This way, as your waste is burned, it will generate some value in the form of electricity.

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  • Waste hierarchy
  • waste minimisation
  • small business waste
  • reduce business waste
  • waste minimisation plan
  • resource efficiency plan