Written by Josh Glover
13 Jul 2023

What is the Waste Hierarchy?

With the healthcare industry now on the route to Net Zero, finding more sustainable ways of managing waste is becoming increasingly important. In this blog, we’ll look at the fundamentals of the waste hierarchy, how it works, and why it’s an important tool for healthcare facilities to use to help with prioritising waste management methods that minimise environmental impact. We’ll also explore some helpful steps for implementing the waste hierarchy that can be used for healthcare facilities of any size.


1 / What is the waste hierarchy?

2 / How does the waste hierarchy work?

3 / Why is the waste hierarchy important in healthcare?

4 / Steps for implementing the waste hierarchy

5 / Do you need waste management advice? 

What Is the Waste Hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy is a framework tool that ranks waste management methods in order from the most to least favourable in terms of environmental impact, helping you to prioritise and manage your waste in the most effective way. This version of the waste hierarchy is aligned with the newly updated Health Technical Memorandum (HTM) 07-01 and NHS Clinical Waste Strategy.

The inverted pyramid graphic below shows the different steps that should be taken to manage healthcare waste with step one being the optimal solution and step seven being the last resort.


1. Prevention: Reducing the amount of waste generated by limiting the demand for products and material resources.


2. Correctly Segregate: Ensuring that generated waste is correctly segregated into the appropriate waste streams helps to maximise opportunities for reuse, recycling, and recovery.


3. Recirculate/Re-use: Recirculating and reusing products instead of disposing of them after a single use where suitable when waste cannot be prevented.


4. Recycle: Transforming waste materials into a new substance or product. A last resort for recovering material from waste because it usually entails using resources or energy to generate a new product.


5. Generate for Energy Sources: Using waste to generate energy and recover other resources such as water, heat, material, and nutrients.  


6. Disposal: Sending waste to high-temperature incinerators or alternative treatment facilities.


7. Landfill: Landfilling secures waste in a single location but there’s a limited capacity. It also contributes to harmful greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). 

How Does the Waste Hierarchy Work?


Some things are much more interesting to explain with a metaphor, so let’s imagine you’re planning a meal… Firstly, you gather your ingredients and prepare them by peeling, washing and chopping them as required. You then mix them together for cooking and once complete, you enjoy the finished dish.

After you’ve eaten, you have the leftovers to deal with, including any scraps from the ingredients you prepared earlier. The waste hierarchy is similar to the process of cleaning up after a meal. The first and most favourable step to take will be to reduce the amount of waste generated in the first place. In the kitchen, this may mean using all of the ingredients you prepared, cooking only the exact amount of food you need, and composting any scraps from your prep.

In a healthcare setting, this could mean reducing the amount of packaging and resources used, reducing the number of disposable items, and rethinking processes to minimise the volume of waste generated. However, both in the kitchen and healthcare environment, this isn’t always possible. If some waste is generated, the next step is to correctly segregate your waste to see how you can reuse it.

In the kitchen, this could mean using the leftovers for another meal; you wouldn’t want any packaging in your next meal so segregation is key before this step. In healthcare, it might involve reusing containers, packaging, or medical supplies whenever possible. If reusing the waste isn’t an option, the next step is to recycle it. As noted earlier with our kitchen analogy, this could mean composting any scraps and leftovers. In healthcare settings, you may recycle paper, cardboard, glass, and certain types of plastics.

Finally, our least favourable options; if the waste cannot be recycled, it should be disposed of in a safe and responsible manner. By following the waste hierarchy framework, we can minimise the amount of waste generated and ensure that what remains is managed in the most environmentally friendly way possible; in both kitchen and healthcare environments. 

Why Is the Waste Hierarchy Important in Healthcare?

The waste hierarchy helps to prioritise efforts to reduce waste in the most environmentally responsible way. This is especially important in the healthcare industry, where large amounts of waste are produced every day.There are several more reasons why using the waste hierarchy framework is good for your healthcare facility:

  • It’s cost-effective: Managing healthcare waste can be expensive, by prioritising prevention and minimisation, healthcare facilities can reduce the amount of waste generated and save money on disposal costs.
  • It improves sustainability: Healthcare waste has a significant impact on the environment, especially when hazardous or infectious waste is involved. By reducing the amount of waste generated, healthcare facilities will be able to ensure what remains is treated in the most sustainable way. Reusing also avoids the need for manufacturing raw materials conserving energy as well as being resource efficient.
  • It protects public health: Following on from the previous point, by doing your utmost to use the most favourable options of waste management according to the waste hierarchy, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint and public health will benefit.
  • It supports a circular economy: Following the waste hierarchy encourages a shift towards a circular economy, where resources are used efficiently, waste is minimised, and materials are kept in use for as long as possible.
  • It encourages innovation: By prioritising waste prevention and minimisation, healthcare facilities and reputable waste management providers will be encouraged to find innovative solutions to reduce waste and improve sustainability.

And with the UK healthcare industry on the route to Net Zero, using tools such as the waste hierarchy to streamline the journey has never been more important. 

Steps for Implementing the Waste Hierarchy

To successfully implement the waste hierarchy, you’ll need to take a holistic approach that involves every facet and moving part of your facility; from Porters, Waste Managers, Estates and Facilities Managers, to Nurses, Procurement and Purchasing.

Some steps that can help you include:

  • Conducting a waste audit: This can help you identify key areas where waste reduction, recirculation, and recycling can be improved.
  • Developing a waste management plan: This can help you ensure that the waste hierarchy is being implemented in an effective and sustainable way.
  • Engaging staff and patients: As well as encouraging staff and patients to reduce waste and promote sustainability, this can also help to build support around sustainable waste management.
  • Procuring sustainable products: Encouraging sustainable purchasing decisions and choosing reusable items over disposable ones where possible can help to reduce the amount of waste generated.

Do You Need Waste Management Advice?

Implementing a framework like the waste hierarchy is a highly effective way to reduce the environmental impact of the healthcare waste your facility is generating. Our expert waste consultants can help you implement the waste hierarchy, conduct a waste audit of your site, develop a waste management plan and provide education and training to stakeholders. We’re dedicated to driving value in sustainability and exceeding benchmarks, supporting our partners on the route to net zero.

To learn more about reducing your carbon footprint with waste management, contact us today.


Consult a healthcare waste expert today


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Josh Glover

Josh Glover

Content Specialist

As a natural storyteller driven by curiosity, Josh aims to educate and engage through informative and thought-provoking content; working towards a safer and more sustainable healthcare system.