Waste Transfer and Dumping

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Waste Transfer and Dumping


Waste is an inevitable and increasing byproduct of modern life, whether it is in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. Despite advances in awareness of ways of reducing, recycling, or reusing waste materials, most of it is still discarded by dumping or dropping it somewhere. Dumping of waste needs to be carefully controlled, if it is not to create health and environmental hazards. In most places where there are regulations controlling waste, this means creating a landfill site to put the waste in.

There are increasing pressures on landfill, however, and waste is sometimes dumped illegally, either in the place where it originated, in the ocean, or exported to another country, where the technology to deal with the waste, especially hazardous waste, may not be readilyavailable. For instance, electronics waste is often exported to China where the local population strips it of valuable components, but often without protecting themselves from the impact of heavy metal pollution.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The United States produces around 600 million metric tons of waste every year, of which about two thirds comes from industry, with the rest being municipal waste, issuing from homes and businesses. Some of this waste is dumped which, at its most basic, means just dropping refuse somewhere. Uncontrolled, dumping results in a mountain of litter or waves of refuse eventually deposited upon the beach.

Over the last 50 years, it has become socially and economically unacceptable to dump refuse in many countries. Environmental legislation requires people to deal with their refuse by making it available for collection by local authorities or specialized disposal services. Uncontrolled dumping has been replaced by landfill, with ordinary and hazardous wastes being separated.

Municipal solid waste, less any material for recycling, is taken to a facility called a waste transfer station. Here it is held before being reloaded onto larger long-distance transport vehicles, which convey it to a landfill site. This reduces labor and transport costs. A waste transfer station should be designed and located with regard to the health and sensibilities of the local population, for solid municipal waste produces odors and attracts vermin.

A landfill site is basically a hole in the ground with a lining into which wastes are put and covered. It needs to be located away from water, to reduce the risk of contamination of the water supply, and on rocks that are reasonably leakproof. The geology of the area should be well understood so that any leaks that do occur can be easily tracked and corrected. Landfills may be lined with clay, plastic, or a mixture of both materials. The landfill also contains a method of collecting and dealing with leachate, which is the liquid that accumulates in the landfill as the waste ages. The cover, which is usually a mixture of clay and soil, keeps the landfill secure from water, vermin, and human interference. The site must be monitored continuously for leaks.

Impacts and Issues

Illegal dumping causes a variety of health and environmental hazards. Refuse is blown by the wind and rain leaches heavy metals and other toxins into the ground, where it could reach the water supply. Many countries where environmental legislation is weak have large areas of piled rubbish, where local residents affected by poverty often put themselves at risk by scavenging. Mexico City and Manila are just two examples of such


INCINERATION: The burning of solid waste as a disposal method.

LANDFILL SITE: Solid waste disposal site consisting of a lined, covered hole in the ground.

MUNICIPAL WASTE: Waste that comes from households or is similar to household waste.

WASTE TRANSFER STATION: A structure in which wastes are temporarily held and sorted before being transferred to larger facilities.

dumping hotspots. Illegal export of waste is a problem too. For instance, petroleum waste was dumped in the Ivory Coast in 2006, where toxic byproducts killed ten people and made thousands of others ill.

Landfills were filled beyond capacity in Naples, Italy, in mid-2007, and photographs of streets blocked with heaps of rubbish were sent via the media around the world, tarnishing the image of the southern Italian city’s charm. Blamed on years of weak public infrastructure and organized crime, the government finally appointed a task force to clear the streets of tons of refuse and divert it to temporary storage facilities and landfills in other parts of Europe. By April 2008, more than a year later, the downtown streets and waterfront were cleared, but tourism, which is Naple’s main source of income, remained hard hit, as large tourist hotels on the Bay of Naples waterfront were only 30% occupied on average. Stories-high piles of rotting trash along the outskirts of the city remained, and citizens in the outlying areas of Naples awaited a workable waste disposal plan.

There is increasing pressure on landfills because transport and land costs are rising. Furthermore, as people become more environmentally aware, they may campaign against having a landfill site in their neighborhood. This means that reducing, recycling, and reusing are more important than ever so that the amount of waste requiring landfill use can be controlled. Incineration or burning of non-toxic waste materials found in landfills can generate heat and energy, and is employed in some areas to deal with bulging landfills. Landfills can even be useful, as they generate methane, which can be tapped off and used as an energy resource.

See Also Electronics Waste; Hazardous Waste; Industrial Pollution; Recycling; Solid Waste Treatment Technologies; Toxic Waste


Environmental standards are lax in developing countries because the people there are desperate for employment. This reasoning was laid out in an extraordinary 1991 memo signed by Larry Summers (1954–), then chief economist of the World Bank. The memo asked, “shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the [less developed countries]?” and went on to say that “the demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity”—that is, the poorer you are, the more ugliness and disease you can be forced to put up with. “I think,” the document went on to say, “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Summers later became deputy secretary of the Treasury Department under President Bill Clinton and was president of Harvard University from 2001 to 2006. He maintained that the memo was meant as a “sardonic counterpoint,” not to be taken seriously. In any case, it describes the reasoning operative in actual waste transfer to poor countries.



Cunningham, W.P., and A. Cunningham. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. New York: McGraw-Hill International Edition, 2008.

Web Sites

Environmental Research Foundation. “The Basics of Landfills.” http://www.ejnet.org/landfills/ (accessed March 21, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Solid Waste Landfills.” http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/muncpl/landfill/landfills.htm (accessed March 21, 2008).

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Waste Transfer Stations.” http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/non-hw/transfer.htm (accessed March 21, 2008).