The Waste Management Hierarchy

Waste management is a complex subject, made up of many component parts. It can be easy to lose sight of the 'big picture'. European waste management is particularly challenging: environmental protection must be achieved without distorting the European internal market. There is no blueprint which can be applied in every situation but the EU has firm principles upon which its approach to waste management is based.

• prevention principle - waste production must be minimised and avoided where possible

4 ODEA, European Commission, DGXI, Statistics on Waste - Phase III, Final Report, Undertaken by ODEA Consortium (OVAM, DGNRE, ERM and ACR), October 1997.

• producer responsibility and polluter pays principle - those who produce the waste or contaminate the environment should pay the full costs of their actions

• precautionary principle - we should anticipate potential problems

• proximity principle - waste should be disposed of as closely as possible to where it is produced

These principles are made more concrete in the 1996 EU general strategy on waste which sets out a preferred hierarchy of waste management operations:

1. prevention of waste

2. recycling and reuse

3. optimum final disposal and improved monitoring The strategy also stresses the need for:

• reduced waste movements and improved waste transport regulation

• new and better waste management tools (e.g. regulatory and economic instruments)

• reliable and comparable statistics on waste

• waste management plans

• proper enforcement of legislation

Nowadays it is more often recognised that, although prevention is clearly the ideal option, there are sound reasons why it is not always sensible to specify precisely an order of waste management preferences. A rigid approach has limitations:

• the hierarchy has little scientific or technical basis (there is no scientific reason, for example, why materials recycling should always be preferred to energy recovery)

• the hierarchy is of little use when a combination of options is used (the hierarchy cannot predict, for example, whether biological treatment combined with thermal treatment of the residues would be preferable to materials recycling plus landfilling of residues)

• the hierarchy does not address costs (and so cannot help assess affordability)

However, the hierarchy can be used within an IWM philosophy as a reminder of the waste management options available to the decision-maker.

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