Applying the waste hierarchy: guidance

Guidance on applying a waste hierarchy under Section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Part 1

Context and Background

1.1 Purpose of guidance

Section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (as amended) makes it the duty of everyone (with the exception of occupiers of domestic properties as respects the household waste produced at those properties) who produces, keeps or manages controlled waste, or as a broker or dealer has control of such waste, to:

  • “take all such measures available to that person as are reasonable in the circumstances to apply the waste hierarchy set out in Article 4(1) of the Waste Directive”.
  • “take all reasonable steps to ensure that the waste is managed in manner which promotes high quality recycling”.

This document provides guidance on the discharge of these duties and on the circumstances in which the duty may be departed from.

1. 2 What is the Waste Hierarchy?

The waste hierarchy ranks waste management options according to the best environmental outcome taking into consideration the lifecycle of the material. The lifecycle of a material is an environmental assessment of all the stages of a product's life from-cradle-to-grave (i.e. from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal or recycling).

In its simplest form, the waste hierarchy gives top priority to preventing waste. When waste is created, it gives priority to preparing it for reuse, then recycling, then other recovery, and last of all disposal (i.e. landfill).

With the exception of tyres, the waste hierarchy ranking applies, almost universally, as described in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Waste Hierarchy

Figure 3: Waste Hierarchy

By way of example, one tonne of food waste in landfill produces 450kg CO2eq (equivalents) whereas preventing one tonne of food waste saves 3590kg CO2eq. The benefits of selecting options higher up the hierarchy extend beyond carbon savings and include reduced water consumption, protection of important raw materials, creation of jobs and other economic opportunities.

In some circumstances there is justification to deviate from the waste hierarchy based on life cycle thinking. The approach taken compares the environmental impacts of managing the wastes according to different options in the waste hierarchy.

The ranking of the various waste management options in Part 2 is based on current scientific research on how the options impact on the environment in terms of ecological foot-printing, climate change, air quality, water quality and resource depletion. Annex 1 provides more details on the environmental indicators. Over time, new technologies may emerge, and the comparative efficiency of waste management options may change. Likewise, new research is published all the time.

To take account of such changes, this guidance and the evidence informing it will be periodically reviewed.

1.3 What is “High Quality Recycling”?

Evidence shows there are more benefits to closed loop recycling where a product is used, discarded, captured, and then the component materials recycled into a new product of similar functionality which can itself be used, discarded, captured and recycled again, continuously cycling the material resource though the supply chain. Examples include:

  • the use of recovered glass cullet in re-melt applications to create new glass products rather than for aggregate in construction;
  • the use of recovered plastic to produce, for example, new food and drinks containers rather than construction products;
  • the use of recovered paper for the production of new paper products rather than other uses such as animal bedding and insulation.

These closed loop applications generally represent the Scottish Government’s interpretation of ‘high quality recycling’ and waste management systems must be designed and operated to prioritise these preferred outcomes. Part 2 of this guidance makes a clear distinction between high quality recycling and other forms of recycling or recovery to help the waste industry understand their duty under Section 34(2L) of the 1990 Regulations.

The ‘high quality’ outcomes described later in this guidance require high quality materials in order to be viable. Supply chains, from producer onwards, must therefore work together to maximise the delivery of high quality material capable of meeting the standards required by those that reprocess materials in high quality outcomes.

Even if markets exist for lower quality material (e.g. through open loop recycling or energy recovery) it is essential that the quality of materials is maintained in order to stimulate the development of high quality markets and recycling infrastructure in Scotland.

1.4 Relevant legislation and guidance

This Waste Hierarchy Guidance forms part of a suite of documents produced to support the implementation of the revised Waste Framework Directive ( rWFD), the Zero Waste Plan and the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012.

The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012

The Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 transpose Articles 11 and 22 of the rWFD and deals with the practical implementation of provisions such as the separate collection of recyclable materials and processing and management of waste and the promotion of ‘high quality’ recycling.

Specific measures introduced by the regulations include:

  • a requirement on all waste holders to take reasonable steps to promote high quality recycling;
  • a requirement for businesses to take reasonable steps to present dry recyclables (metals, plastics, paper, card and glass) (2014) and food waste for collection (2014 and 2016 for businesses producing between 5kg and 50kg of food waste);
  • a requirement on local authorities to provide householders with a collection service for dry recyclables (2014) and food waste (2016);
  • a ban on materials collected separately for recycling going to landfill or incineration (2014);
  • a ban on biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill, thus helping to substantially reduce harmful emissions of methane (2021).

Code of Practice on Duty of Care

The Duty of Care requirements are laid out in Section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 (as amended). Waste must be managed correctly by storing it properly, only transferring it to the appropriate persons and ensuring that when it is transferred it is sufficiently well described to enable its safe recovery or disposal without harming the environment.

As described above, the Waste (Scotland) Regulations 2012 amended Section 34 to implement a number of actions of the Scottish Government’s Zero Waste Plan, including measures to increase the quantity and quality of recyclable materials collected in Scotland.

The “Duty of Care: A Code of Practice” (the “Code”) explains these duties which apply to anyone who produces, keeps, imports or manages controlled waste in Scotland. It provides advice on the design and operation of waste management systems with respect to the segregation of key waste streams at source and promoting the ‘high quality’ recycling outcomes set out in Part 2 of this guidance. The Code can be downloaded from the Scottish Government’s web site at

Kerbside Good Practice Guide (for Local Authorities)

Zero Waste Scotland ( ZWS) has produced a Kerbside Good Practice Guide which provides

Local Authorities with guidance and good practice examples when operating kerbside collection services. The guide explains that recycling collection services and subsequent materials management routes should be designed to maximise the capture of the key waste streams and prioritise ‘high quality’ recycling.

In the Kerbside Good Practice Guide the benchmarks for high quality recycling are described for the key recyclable materials that Scottish local authorities will be required by the regulations to collect separately: food waste, glass, metals, plastics, paper and card. These aim to ensure that materials are collected in a way which provides the potential for ‘high quality’ recycling. The Kerbside Good Practice Guide can be downloaded from the Zero Waste Scotland web site [1] .

1.5 Applying the hierarchy

The Tables in Part 2 illustrate how the hierarchy applies for a range of common waste streams.

It includes departures from the standard Article 4 hierarchy where, in the opinion of the Scottish Government, this is justified on the basis of life cycle thinking. The list is not exhaustive, and will be expanded in future years. The evidence base used by the Scottish Government to form its opinion on the departures is provided in a separate document [2] .

If your organisation produces, keeps or manages waste, you need to take all such measures as are reasonable in the circumstances to apply the waste hierarchy to prevent waste. You must apply the hierarchy as a priority order when making decisions about the management of waste.

You must endeavour to first prevent the waste arising and then take steps to prepare the waste for reuse and engage in ‘high quality’ recycling before other recycling and recovery activities are considered.

For each waste stream you handle, you should consult the tables in Part 2 to ensure that you are taking the necessary steps to apply the waste hierarchy. Some further guidance on action that can be taken to prevent waste or increase rates of reuse and recycling is provided in Part 3.

This includes links to other relevant sources of information, support and guidance.

To help waste holders understand how to comply with the duty to promote ‘high quality’ recycling, the tables in Part 2 provide details of the recycling outcomes which, in the view of the Scottish Government, constitute ‘high quality’. These outcomes are shown in the green boxes and must be prioritised over other forms of recycling.

The tables in Part 2 also provide the outcomes which, in the view of Scottish Government, should be avoided where possible and only used where opportunities to use options higher up the hierarchy have been exhausted. These outcomes are shown in the red boxes. It is anticipated that these outcomes will be largely phased out, either by the markets, through the incineration and landfill bans or through other policy interventions such as the split in producer responsibility targets for glass recycling.

If you are making decisions on waste management, you must be able to justify them. It is good practice therefore to keep a record of your decisions.


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