Household waste is commonly referred to as garbage or trash. As the population of the world expands, so does the amount of waste produced. Generally, the more automated and industrialized human societies become, the more waste they produce. For example, the industrial revolution introduced new manufactured products and new manufacturing processes that added to household solid waste and industrial waste. Modern consumerism and the excess packaging of many products also contribute significantly to the increasing amount of solid waste.
Much of the trash Americans produce (about 40%) is paper and paper products. Paper accounts for more than 71 million tons of garbage. Yard wastes are the next most common waste, contributing more than 31 million tons of solid waste. Metals account for more than 8% of all household waste, and plastics are close behind with another 8% or 14 million tons. America's trash also contains about 7% glass and nearly 20 million tons of other materials like rubber , textiles, leather, wood, and inorganic wastes. Much of the waste comes from packaging materials. Other types of waste produced by consumers are durable goods such as tires, appliances, and furniture, while other household solid waste is made up of non-durable goods such as paper, disposable products, and clothing. Many of these items could be recycled and reused, so they also can be considered a non-utilized resource.
In less industrialized times and even today in many developing countries, households and industries disposed of unwanted materials in bodies of water or in land dumps. However, this practice creates undesirable effects such as health hazards and foul odors. Open dumps serve as breeding grounds for disease-carrying organisms such as rats and insects. As the first world became more alert to environmental hazards, methods for waste disposal were studied and improved. Today, however, governments, policymakers, and individuals still wrestle with the problem of how to improve methods of waste disposal, storage, and recycling .
In 1976, the United States Congress passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in an effort to protect human health and the environment from hazards associated with waste disposal. In addition, the act aims to conserve energy and natural resources and to reduce the amount of waste Americans generate. Further, the RCRA promotes methods to manage waste in an environmentally sound manner. The act covers regulation of solid waste, hazardous waste , and underground storage tanks that hold petroleum products and certain chemicals .
Most household solid waste is removed from homes through community garbage collection and then taken to landfills. The garbage in landfills is buried, but it can still produce noxious odors. In addition, rainwater can seep through landfill sites and leach out pollutants from the landfill trash. These are then carried into nearby bodies of water. Pollutants can also contaminate groundwater , which in turn leads to contamination of drinking water.
In order to fight this problem, sanitary landfills were developed. Clay or plastic liners are placed in the ground before garbage is buried. This helps prevent water from seeping out of the landfill and into the surrounding environment. In sanitary landfills, each time a certain amount of waste is added to the landfill, it is covered by a layer of soil . At a predetermined height the site is capped and covered with dirt. Grass and trees can be planted on top of the capped landfill to help prevent erosion and to improve the look of the site. Sanitary landfills are more expensive than open pit dumps, and many communities do not want the stigma of having a landfill near them. These factors make it politically difficult to open new landfills. Landfills are regulated by state and local governments and must meet minimum requirements set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some household hazardous wastes such as paint, used motor oil, or insecticides can not be accepted at landfills and must be handled separately.
Incineration (burning) of solid waste offers an alternative to disposal in landfills. Incineration converts large amounts of solid waste to smaller amounts of ash. The ash must still be disposed of, however, and it can contain toxic materials. Incineration released smoke and other possible pollutants into the air. However, modern incinerators are equipped with smokestack scrubbers that are quite effective in trapping toxic emissions. Many incinerators have the added benefit of generating electricity from the trash they burn.
Composting is a viable alternative to landfills and incineration for some biodegradable solid waste. Vegetable trimmings, leaves, grass clippings, straw, horse manure, wood chippings, and similar plant materials are all biodegradable and can be composted. Compost helps the environment because it reduces the amount of waste going into landfills. Correct composting also breaks down biodegradable material into a nutrient-rich soil additive that can be used in gardens or for landscaping. In this way, nutrients vital to plants are returned to the environment. To successfully compost biodegradable wastes, the process must generate high enough temperatures to kill seeds or organisms in the composted material. If done incorrectly, compost piles can give off foul odors.
Families and communities can help reduce household waste by making some simple lifestyle changes. They can reduce solid waste by recycling, repairing rather than replacing durable goods, buying products with minimal packaging, and choosing packaging made from recycled materials. Reducing packaging material is an example of source reduction. Much of the responsibility for source reduction with manufacturers. Businesses need to be encouraged to find smart and cost effective ways to manufacture and package goods in order to minimize waste and reduce the toxicity of the waste created. Consumers can help by encouraging companies to create more environmentally responsible packaging through their choice of products. For example, consumers successfully pressured McDonalds to change from serving their sandwiches in non-biodegradable Styrofoam boxes to wrapping them in biodegradable paper.
For individual households can reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills by recycling. Paper, aluminum , glass, and plastic containers are the most commonly recycled household materials. Strategies for household recycling vary from community to community. In some areas materials must separated by type before collection. In others, the separation occurs after collection.
Recycling preserves natural resources by providing an alternative supply of raw materials to industries. It also saves energy and eliminates the emissions of many toxic gases and water pollutants. In addition, recycling helps create jobs, stimulates development of more environmentally sound technologies, and conserves resources for future generations . For recycling to be successful, there must be an end market for goods made from recycled materials. Consumers can support recycling by buying "green" products made of recycled materials.
Battery recycling is also becoming increasingly common in the United States and is required by law in many European countries. In 2001, a nonprofit organization called Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (RBRC) began offering American communities cost-free recycling of portable rechargeable batteries such as those used in cell phones, camcorders, and laptop computers. These batteries contain cadmium , which is recycled back into other batteries or used in certain coatings or color pigments.
Household waste disposal is an international problem that is being attacked in many ways in many countries. In Tripoli, Libya, a plant exploits household waste, converting it to organic fertilizer . The plant recycles 500 tons of household waste, producing 212 tons of fertilizer a day. In France, a country with less available space for landfills than the United States, incineration is proving a desirable alternative. The French are turning household waste into energy through combustion and are developing technologies to control the residues that occur from incineration.
In the United States, education of consumers is a key to reducing the volume and toxicity of household waste. The EPA promotes four basic principles for reducing solid waste: reduce the amount of trash discarded, reuse products and containers, recycle and compost, and reconsider activities that produce waste.
[Teresa G. Norris ]
"Communities Invited to Recycle Rechargables Cost Free." Environmental News Network. October 11, 2001 [cited July 2002]. <http://www.enn.com/news>.