Waste legislation and regulations

Guidance for businesses and organisations on how waste disposal is regulated and what they need to do to comply.

Relevant legislation and regulations

The EU Waste Framework Directive provides the legislative framework for the collection, transport, recovery and disposal of waste, and includes a common definition of waste (PDF, 81.3KB, 11 pages) . The directive requires all member states to take the necessary measures to ensure waste is recovered or disposed of without endangering human health or causing harm to the environment and includes permitting, registration and inspection requirements.

The directive also requires member states to take appropriate measures to encourage firstly, the prevention or reduction of waste production and its harmfulness and secondly the recovery of waste by means of recycling, re-use or reclamation or any other process with a view to extracting secondary raw materials, or the use of waste as a source of energy. The directive’s requirements are supplemented by other directives for specific waste streams.

The Waste (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 were laid before Parliament and the Welsh Assembly on 19 July 2012 and come into force on 1 October 2012.The amended regulations relate to the separate collection of waste. They amend the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 by replacing regulation 13. From 1 January 2015, waste collection authorities must collect waste paper, metal, plastic and glass separately. It also imposes a duty on waste collection authorities, from that date, when making arrangements for the collection of such waste, to ensure that those arrangements are by way of separate collection. 

These duties apply where separate collection is necessary to ensure that waste undergoes recovery operations in accordance with the directive and to facilitate or improve recovery; and where it is technically, environmentally and economically practicable. The duties apply to waste classified as waste from households and waste that is classified as commercial or industrial waste.The amended regulations also replaced regulation 14(2) to reflect the changes to regulation 13 to ensure a consistent approach. Consequential changes are also made to reflect changes in paragraph numbering in the new regulation 13.

Our combined Summary of consultation responses and government response to the consultation on amending the Waste Regulations 2011 on the separate collection of recycling has also been published.

Environmental permitting for waste

The recovery and disposal of waste requires a permit under EU legislation with the principal objective of preventing harm to human health and the environment. This legislation also allows member states to provide for exemptions from the need for a permit, providing general rules are laid down for each type of exempt activity, and the operation is registered with the relevant registration authority. We have given effect to the EU requirements through the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 (the 2010 regulations). More information is available on the National Archive and on the Environment Agency website.

Hazardous waste regulations

Hazardous waste is essentially waste that contains hazardous properties which if mismanaged has the potential to cause greater harm to the environment and human health than non-hazardous. As a result, strict controls apply from the point of its production, to its movement, management, and recovery or disposal.

Waste shipment regulations

Waste shipment regulations are comprised of EU Regulations, a UK statutory instrument and a UK Plan. Between them, they control movements of waste between the UK and other countries and provide a framework for enforcement. Some movements are prohibited, others are subject to prior written notification and consent procedures and some are subject to basic administrative controls. The control depends on the nature of the waste, its destination and whether it is destined for recovery or disposal. You can find more information on the National Archive.

UK Ship recycling strategy

Ship recycling is a global issue. Defra considers the environmentally sound management of ships to be a high priority and in 2007 issued a Ship Recycling Strategy for UK ships.

Electrical and electronic equipment

Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) and Restriction of Hazardous Substances in electrical and electronic equipment (RoHS) directives aim to reduce he quantity of waste from electrical and electronic and increase its re-use, recovery and recycling. The RoHS directive aims to limit the environmental impact of electrical and electronic equipment when it reached the end of its life. It does this by minimising the hazardous substances of legislation controlling hazardous substances in electrical equipment across the community. More information is available on the Environment Agency website.

Packaging, packaging waste and packaging waste regulations

These regulations aim to harmonise national measures concerning the management of packaging and packaging waste to provide a high level of environmental protection and to ensure the functioning of the internal market. For more details read the government’s policy on reducing and managing waste.

Landfill directive

This directive aims to prevent or reduce as far as possible negative effects on the environment from the landfilling of waste, by introducing stringent technical requirements for waste and landfills and setting targets for the reduction of biodegradable municipal waste going to landfill. For more information, read the government’s policy on reducing and managing waste.

End-of-life vehicles (ELVs) Regulation 2003

This regulation aims to prevent waste from end-of-life vehicles and promote the collection, re-use and recycling of their components to protect the environment. More information is available on the Environment Agency website.

Batteries directive

This directive aims to improve the environmental performance of batteries and minimise the impact waste batteries have on the environment. It does this by:

Further information

EU Waste Framework Directive

The revised revised EU Waste Framework Directive (revised WFD) (PDF, 146KB, 28 pages) was adopted when the Environment Council met on 20 October 2008, signed on behalf of the European Parliament and the Council on 19 November 2008 and published in the Official Journal of the European Union on 22 November (L312/3) as Directive 2008/98/EC. The revised WFD entered into force on 12 December 2008.

The revised WFD also provides that the European Commission may introduce a range of measures by means of comitology procedure (eg end-of-waste criteria for specified waste streams). These provisions will be available to the Commission from the date of the revised WFD’s entry into force.

This guidance is aimed at businesses and other organisations which take decisions on a day-to-day basis about whether something is or is not waste. In most cases, the decision is straightforward and whoever is taking the decision does not need guidance from the competent authorities to help them take it. However, in some cases, the decision is more difficult (eg where the substance or object has a value or a potential use or where the decision is about whether waste has been fully recovered or recycled and has therefore ceased to be waste). The aim of the guidance is to help ensure that the right decision is taken in these more difficult cases.

We consulted on the draft at the start of 2010 but pledged to publish the full document soon after the publication of the EC guidance on the WFD to ensure that the definition of waste on the 2 documents was still fully aligned:


The legislation to transpose the revised WFD into national law has been made by Parliament and the devolved administrations. The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 came into force from 29 March 2011.

Other European Commission measures

The European Commission has introduced the following measures by means of the comitology procedure:

End-of-waste criteria developed under Article 6 of the revised WFD for: aluminium and ferrous scrap metal

Information on national end-of-waste criteria (Quality Protocols) can be found on the Environment Agency’s website.

If you have any queries, please contact the Defra helpline

Introduction to the waste hierarchy

Many businesses are unaware of how significantly waste impacts on their bottom line. As the demand for materials grows worldwide, raising input costs, it makes sense for businesses to adopt the waste hierarchy.

Article 4 of the revised EU Waste Framework Directive sets out 5 steps for dealing with waste, ranked according to environmental impact - the ‘waste hierarchy’.

Prevention, which offers the best outcomes for the environment, is at the top of the priority order, followed by preparing for re-use, recycling, other recovery and disposal, in descending order of environmental preference.

Stages Include
Prevention: using less material in design and manufacture, keeping products for longer, re-use, using less hazardous materials
Preparing for re-use: checking, cleaning, repairing, refurbishing, whole items or spare parts
Recycling: turning waste into a new substance or product, includes composting if it meets quality protocols
Other recovery: includes anaerobic digestion, incineration with energy recovery, gasification and pyrolysis which produce energy (fuels, heat and power) and materials from waste, some backfilling
Disposal: landfill and incineration without energy recovery

The waste hierarchy has been transposed into UK law through the The Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011. The regulations came into force on 29 March 2011. The provisions relating to the hierarchy (set out at in Regulations 12, 15 and 35) came into force on 28 September 2011.

What you need to do

If your business or organisation (including local authorities on behalf of householders) produces or handles waste (this includes importing, producing, carrying, keeping or treating waste; dealers or brokers who have control of waste, and anyone responsible for the transfer of waste), you must take all such measures as are reasonable in the circumstances to:

  • prevent waste
  • apply the waste hierarchy when you transfer waste

Guidance documents

Defra published in 2011 a package of guidance to assist businesses and other organisations in England to make better decisions on waste and resource management. This guidance considers the environmental impacts of various waste management options for a range of materials:

  • a shorter summary guidance aimed particularly at SMEs
  • an evidence paper which summarises current scientific research on the environmental impacts of various waste management options
  • an online support tool which produces a tailored guide for businesses according to what waste material they handle - see

As well as through the transposing regulations, the revised waste hierarchy has been incorporated through:

  • the planning system via an update to Planning Policy Statement 10: Planning for sustainable waste management
  • the environmental permitting regime, if you are operating a site that requires a permit under the Environmental Permitting Regulations (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 - in addition to the duties described above, a condition in new or revised permits will place a duty on the permit holder to apply the hierarchy - if you are an existing permit holder, this new condition will apply when your permit comes up for review (see Environmental permitting guidance).

Further information

Defining the waste hierarchy stages

The definitions of each of the stages can be found in Article 3 of Directive 2008/98/EC. Non-exhaustive lists of disposal and recovery operations can be found in Annexes I and II of the directive:

Prevention - measures taken before a substance, material or product has become waste, that reduce:

  • the quantity of waste, including through the re-use of products or the extension of the life span of products
  • the adverse impacts of the generated waste on the environment and human health
  • the content of harmful substances in materials and products

Re-use - any operation by which products or components that are not waste are used again for the same purpose for which they were conceived.

Preparing for re-use - checking, cleaning or repairing recovery operations, by which products or components of products that have become waste are prepared so that they can be re-used without any other pre-processing

Recycling - means any recovery operation by which waste materials are reprocessed into products, materials or substances whether for the original or other purposes. It includes the reprocessing of organic material but does not include energy recovery and the reprocessing into materials.

Recovery - means any operation the principal result of which is waste serving a useful purpose by replacing other materials which would otherwise have been used to fulfil a particular function, or waste being prepared to fulfil that function, in the plant or in the wider economy.

Disposal - means any operation which is not recovery even where the operation has as a secondary consequence the reclamation of substances or energy. Annex I sets out a non-exhaustive list of disposal operations

Deciding the priority order for each waste material

Our guidance is based on the best evidence currently available. As waste management technologies evolve, so their impact on the environment relative to other options may change. The current research shows that for food, anaerobic digestion is environmentally better than composting and other recovery options. The evidence also indicates that for garden waste and for mixtures of food waste and garden waste, dry anaerobic digestion followed by composting is environmentally better than composting alone.

Likewise, the scientific data for certain waste management technologies is currently limited, eg for pyrolysis and rendering. So we are unable to determine their environmental benefits relative to other options within the hierarchy.

Businesses and local authorities may consider other factors when they make decisions on waste, including social and economic impacts, and technical feasibility. These factors are will vary in line with the size of an organisation, the range of materials it handles and its location. The relevance of these factors will have to be weighed on a case-by-case basis.

As new technologies emerge, we will review the evidence available annually and update our guidance on the hierarchy accordingly.

Anaerobic digestion - environmentally preferable to composting

The scientific evidence we currently have, based on life-cycle analysis, shows that for food, anaerobic digestion (AD) is environmentally better than composting and other recovery options. The evidence also indicates that for garden waste and for mixtures of food waste and garden waste, dry anaerobic digestion followed by composting is environmentally better than composting alone.

This is because anaerobic digestion produces both biogas, which can be used to generate vehicle fuel, heat, electricity, combined heat and power, and digestate, which can be used instead of fossil fuel-intensive fertilisers. The combination of both outputs means that anaerobic digestion is environmentally preferable to composting.

The directive does not mandate the use of one option over the others. Businesses and local authorities may consider other factors when they make decisions on waste, including social and economic impacts, and technical feasibility.

The evidence indicates that for garden waste and for mixtures of food waste and garden waste, which are not suitable for dry anaerobic digestion composting is environmentally better. The relative merits of composting depend on the compost being used in place of fertiliser or peat. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions composting and energy recovery are broadly similar.

Recycling and energy from waste

Recovery activities such as energy from waste are also a key part of the hierarchy. The evidence shows that for most materials recycling is better for the environment than energy from waste (EfW) and that EfW is better than landfill.

The government wants to reduce residual waste. However, there will be a need to deal with this type of waste for the foreseeable future and recycling alone cannot currently meet the ambition for diversion from landfill. There is no immediate risk of EfW facilities being deprived of feedstock.

Other sources of support

The Environment Agency has produced advice on the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011.

Separate guidance for England and Wales

In England, the decision has been made to use a range of criteria to inform the waste hierarchy - climate change, air pollution, water pollution and resource depletion. In Wales, the hierarchy is informed by ecological footprinting. Because of this difference in methodology, the 2 guidance documents are not always the same, although they often reach similar conclusions. Separate guidance will be produced in Wales in due course.

Published 9 April 2013
Last updated 9 May 2014 + show all updates
  1. Removed information about the Waste Hierarchy Guidance Review 2012. The review was put on hold and the information is now obsolete.
  2. First published.