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Hierarchies in waste, transportation, energy and more

There are so many sustainability solutions, how do you know which is “better?” There are different ways to define “better,” depending on your priorities, and you’ll often see options ranked for cost efficiency and political expediency, but it’s never a bad idea to start out by understanding which methods are considered the BEST – in terms of lowest impact to the environment. These are the ones that require behavioral and possibly infrastructure shifts, and so may be tougher to realize than other measures. But it’s interesting to see. Please note that the very bottom of each of these hierarchies is not actually a “sustainability solution” but the very unsustainable status quo (in the case of the first three). You’ll also see a pattern – the very best solution is usually use reduction or conservation.


First up is the Environmental Protection Agency’s hierarchy for management of non-hazardous waste. You can see that the top three are your three R’s – Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle (and compost).

EPA Waste Hierarchy

EPA Waste Hierarchy








Next we haveNorthumberland County Council’s energy hierarchy.

Energy Hierarchy

Energy Hierarchy













Third up is Transportation Alternatives’ transportation hierarchy. Bicycles don’t emit anything while being used, but energy and materials did go into their production and distribution, so it comes behind your own two legs.

Transportation Alternatives Hierarchy

Transportation Alternatives Hierarchy













Finally, we have the carbon emissions reduction hierarchy from the Southwest Environment and Energy Management Group.

Carbon Emissions Hierarchy

Carbon Emissions Hierarchy

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