It's not until one gets lower in the hierarchy that one gets to materials recycling and composting and then the recovery of energy from waste by a whole range of methods, some much more eco-friendly than others, such as pyrolysis and gasification compared with the - all too often proposed - mass incineration with electricity generation. Many fear that increasing mass incineration with electricity generation reduces the incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle given that one needs to retain high levels of rubbish to feed the beast that burns it, an issue recently explored here in The Guardian.
Without very significant reductions in waste we still have to deal with very large amounts of material in a fuel and money intensive way. This often includes sending recyclable and compostable materials over large distances on trains, in lorries and on ships because recycling and composting facilities don’t exist locally and the infrastructure is not in place to use the products of recycling and composting. Bristol is at least seeking to add to locally available recycling centres (see here) but only once funds become or are made available.
What would really help to tackle our waste sustainability problems is a very significant shift to producing minimal waste and designing for reuse, repair and long life products. This is a much more difficult step to take in the sense of the scale and type of change because it means restructuring our economy so that: re-use, recycling and composting facilities are operating locally; the infrastructure is in place to use the products of recycling and composting; and instead of being geared to mass consumption the economy works in a cyclic fashion geared to conserving our real wealth (see here and here). Thus building sustainable cities is as much about a new economics as it is about the biophysical environment.
More on: recycling here; Bristol's waste management system here.