Understanding the waste hierarchy

The waste hierarchy has been around since the 1970s. The hierarchy is a sustainability tool that helps inform the most favourable actions for our environment. For industry, the waste hierarchy enables us to plan inputs, design and even the end-of-life of an item.

Step 1: Prevention

The first step in the waste hierarchy is prevention. Prevention requires us to analyse the design, inputs (raw materials) and quality of each item that is produced. The design should have a minimal environmental impact. Ideally, the item should be repairable, compostable, or recyclable. In the prevention phase, we analyse the product’s composition, choosing inputs that are non-toxic and requiring as little manufacturing as possible. Instead of choosing plastics and composite textiles, we have the opportunity to choose natural fibres such as cotton, bamboo and wood. Choosing natural fibres means a product will have less environmental impact at end-of-life and will be compostable or recyclable.

Quality has a big part to play in the prevention phase. By designing and manufacturing quality products, we extend the durability and life expectancy of the product, reducing the need for resource-rich manufacturing, which tends to have the most significant environmental impact in the product lifecycle.

For consumers, the prevention phase means refusing items we don’t really need. That means choosing to forego the convenient plastic bag, questioning if we need another pair of jeans or if we could go without that 4th pair of black shoes. We rethink our wants, needs, and desires and redesign to prevent waste. It’s our chance to shape the future through better material, design and quality choices. In this step, we can analyse material use and choose materials that are less hazardous and longer-lasting.

Step 2: Reuse

If we can’t prevent waste entirely, we move on to the second step in the waste hierarchy, reuse. Here, we: swap, repair, clean, buy and sell items to keep them at their highest value for as long as possible. While reuse is often impossible for mattresses and bedding products, it is an essential step in the waste hierarchy. Reuse is core to a circular economy, which we will explore in later blogs. Shopping at op shops, visiting a local repair café, sharing, swapping and even using online second-hand sales platforms are great ways to reuse and do your part to live more sustainably.

Step 3: Repurpose

Repurposing refers to reusing an existing product for a different application. In the bedding industry, this could mean using the metal insides of a mattress as a fence or a green wall or creating a sculpture from mattress parts and offcuts. Repurposing has become more prevalent in recent years as individuals and businesses get creative to rethink items that may have ended up in landfill. Repurposing has become popular and is now mainstream for consumer groups.

Step 4: Composting and Recycling

When something cannot be reused or repurposed, the next step in the waste hierarchy is composting and recycling. While mattresses and bedding products are difficult to reuse or repurpose, compostable or fully recyclable bedding products are theoretically possible.

Composting refers to breaking down organic matter. A mattress with purely natural fibres would be compostable. While some non-organic or natural fibre content is more common, maximising natural fibre content helps minimise the impact of a mattress on the environment.

Recycling refers to converting waste into reusable material. A fully recyclable mattress would require inputs of steel, foam and single-origin textile, so, at the end-of-life, the mattress could be deconstructed, and each part recycled in full. Currently, technology does not exist to cost-effectively separate and recycle composite textiles or to recycle latex foam, meaning these inputs should be avoided where possible.

Step 5: Recovery

Recovery is the next best option when prevention, reuse, repurposing, and recycling are not an option or are overlooked. Recovery includes shredding, incineration, energy from waste, pyrolysis and gasification. Recovery is a last attempt to avoid burying precious resources in landfill. Even in recovery, waste is seen as a resource with value.

Step 6: Disposal/landfill

The final option that we want to avoid wherever possible is landfill or disposal. This would mean a failure of a circular economy and that potentially precious resources are buried in landfill. As we move towards a zero-waste future with a genuine circular economy, we aim to reduce or eliminate landfilling our waste, particularly large products like mattresses and furniture. Landfills emit greenhouse gases, create potentially harmful water runoffs and take up valuable space; avoiding landfill and moving to a zero-waste future is key to protecting our environment.

Understanding the waste hierarchy helps guide our design, innovation and purchase decisions. It helps us to understand consumer behaviour and desires before they become demands.

Reducing the impact of the bedding industry on the environment is no small feat. It will take a genuine, industry-wide commitment. Together, we can innovate to create a zero-waste, sustainable future for future generations. The Australian Bedding Stewardship Council is an industry partnership that is working to help reduce our industry’s environmental footprint before government mandates force us to act. Will you play a part?

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