What is the “Waste Hierarchy” and what does it mean for Mainers?

Everyone has heard the mantra called out by environmentalists everywhere – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! Since the first grade, many of us have recited the three R’s when it comes to dealing with our trash, but did you know that those three words are part of a much larger picture?

Here’s a little background information:

The State of Maine established a law in 1989 called the Solid Waste Management and Recycling Act, to guide state and local decisions about how we deal with our household and commercial waste. This law created a hierarchy of how materials should be disposed of, and set goals to recycle more materials to save them from a lifetime in the landfill, and aligned with a similar model set by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can find more information about the State of Maine’s Waste Management and Recycling Plan here.

Before recycling, composting, and Waste-to-Energy was possible, all of our waste took up space in landfills. Hundreds of thousands of tons were stored in the ground, and much of that waste is still there, completely undisturbed. Once landfills are filled and “capped” to contain the mess, the trash inside is largely preserved without any air to help break it down. Deep within these trash mountains, highly flammable methane gases are produced from bacteria in the trash and can be released into the air – and methane traps up to 72 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 over a 20 year period. Methane is emitted through the process of making fossil fuels, farming and livestock, biomass burning, and what we throw away in landfills.

What exactly are we throwing away? A study completed in 2011 from the University of Maine estimates that our trash is made up of mostly recoverable materials:

27.78% food waste
1.48% yard waste
25.57% paper
13.44% plastics
2.71% glass
3.26% metal
0.92% e-waste
1.14% wood (treated and untreated)

If you’re counting, that amounts to more than 76% of our total waste!


The Waste Hierarchy has become a policy to send less materials to the landfill, but how can we practice this in our daily routines? Over the next six months, we will unpack each tier of the hierarchy and discuss how each of us can make an impact when we Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle our waste.