Waste Disposal

views updated May 23 2018


One of the consequences of a modern society is the generation of enormous amounts of waste. The scale of materials use by industrialized countries dwarfs that of a century ago. By 2000 the stock of materials drew from all ninety-two naturally occurring elements in the periodic table compared with just twenty in 1900. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimates that, in the United States alone, consumption of metal, glass, wood, cement, and chemicals has grown eighteen-fold since 1900 and that the nation accounts for one-third of all materials used throughout the world.

The production and processing of almost any material generates by-products (which may or may not be useful) and releases them to into the air and water. Manufacturing, mining, oil and gas drilling, chemical processing, and coal-burning power plants produce many billions of tons of waste each year. Generation of radioactive and hazardous wastes has grown as society has advanced technologically. Even agriculture generates about a billion tons of waste annually, primarily crop residuals. Finally, residential and commercial generation of municipal solid waste (garbage) is at 230 million tons per year.

So where does it all go? In the past, worries about waste disposal were eased by the apparent ability of the environment (land, air, and water) to absorb that waste. The old saying "out of sight, out of mind" ruled the day. Today, we realize that any type of waste disposal has significant environmental consequences.


The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA; PL 94-580), the major federal law on waste disposal, was passed in 1976. Its primary goal was to "protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal." RCRA is also concerned with reducing the amount of waste generated, ensuring that wastes are managed properly, and conserving natural resources and energy. The RCRA regulates solid waste, hazardous waste, and underground storage tanks containing petroleum products or certain chemicals.

The RCRA definition of solid waste includes garbage and other materials we would ordinarily consider "solid," as well as sludges, semisolids, liquids, and even containers of gases. These wastes can come from industrial, agricultural, commercial, and residential sources. The RCRA primarily covers hazardous waste, which is only a small part of all waste generated. State and local governments are mainly responsible for passing laws concerning non-hazardous waste, although the federal government will supply money and guidance to local governments so they can better manage their garbage systems.

Other federal laws cover other areas of waste disposal. For example, the Clean Water Act (PL 95-217) regulates wastewater disposal; the Safe Drinking Water Act (PL 93-523) controls underground injections (when wastewater is injected into deep wells); and the Clean Air Act (PL 95-95) governs air pollution.


Prior to the 1970s most industrial waste was dumped in landfills, stored on-site, burned, or discharged to surface waters with little or no treatment. Since the Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, industrial waste management follows a hierarchy introduced by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). (See Figure 4.1.) Source reduction is the preferred method for waste management. This is an activity that prevents the generation of waste initially, for example, a change in operating practices or raw materials. The second choice is recycling, followed by energy recovery. If none of these methods is feasible, then treatment prior to disposal is recommended.

For example, a paper mill that changes its pulping chemicals might reduce the amount of toxic liquid left over after the paper is produced. If that is not possible, perhaps the pulping liquid could be recycled and reused in the process. If not, perhaps the liquid can be burned for fuel to recover energy. If not, and the liquid requires disposal, it should be treated as necessary to reduce its toxicity before being released into the environment.

Industrial waste is categorized based on its relative harm to the environment, chiefly to human health. Most wastes produced by industry are nonhazardous. However, the potential danger from hazardous wastes is so severe that the disposal of such wastes is heavily regulated.

Hazardous Industrial Wastes

Hazardous waste is the inevitable by-product of industrialization. Manufacturers use many chemicals to create their products. Hazardous waste is generated by big industries like automobile and computer manufacturers and by small businesses like neighborhood photo shops and cleaners. Although people can reduce quantities of hazardous waste through careful management, it is not possible to eliminate hazardous residues entirely because of the continual demand for goods.

Industrial wastes are usually a combination of compounds, one or more of which may be hazardous; for example, used pickling solution from a metal processor can also contain residual acids and metal salts. A mixture of waste produced regularly as a result of the industrial process is called a waste stream, and it generally consists of diluted rather than full-strength compounds. Often, the hazardous components are diluted in a mixture of dirt, oil, or water.

Officially, hazardous waste is defined as a waste that is either listed as such in EPA regulations or exhibits one or more of the following characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity (containing constituents in excess of federal standards). In 2004 the EPA had a list of more than 500 hazardous wastes. Hazardous wastes are regulated under subtitle C of the RCRA. The EPA has the primary responsibility for permitting facilities that treat, store, and dispose of hazardous waste. States can adopt more stringent regulations if they wish. Because of their potential dangers, hazardous wastes require special care when being stored, transported, or discarded.

Contamination of the air, water, and soil with hazardous wastes can frequently lead to serious health problems. The EPA estimates that roughly 1,000 cases of cancer annually, as well as degenerative diseases, mental retardation, birth defects, and chromosomal changes, can be linked to public exposure to hazardous waste. While most scientists agree that exposure to high levels of hazardous waste is dangerous, there is less agreement on the danger of exposure to low levels.

Every two years the EPA, in partnership with the states, publishes The National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report. The latest report available was published in 2003 and includes data from 2001. The report only includes wastewaters that are disposed via deep well/underground injection. All other wastewaters that are managed in wastewater treatment systems are not included.

The EPA distinguishes between large-quantity and small-quantity generators of hazardous waste. A large-quantity generator is one that

  • generates at least 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds) of RCRA hazardous waste in any single month,
  • generates in any single month or accumulates at any time at least 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of RCRA acute hazardous waste, or
  • generates or accumulates at any time at least 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of spill cleanup material contaminated with RCRA acute hazardous waste.

Ninety percent of all hazardous waste in the United States is produced by large-quantity generators. The chemical industry is by far the largest producer, followed by petroleum refiners and the metal-processing industry.

In 2001 there were 19,024 large-quantity generators that reported the generation of 40.8 million tons of RCRA hazardous waste. The five states with the largest generation of hazardous waste were Texas (7.5 million tons), Louisiana (3.9 million tons), New York (3.5 million tons), Kentucky (2.7 million tons), and Mississippi (2.2 million tons). Together, these states accounted for 49 percent of the total quantity generated.

The remaining 10 percent of hazardous waste comes from more than 100,000 small-quantity generators—businesses that produce less than 1,000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month. Table 4.1 shows a list of typical small-quantity generators and the types of hazardous waste they produce. Hazardous wastes from small-quantity generators and households are regulated under subtitle D of the RCRA.

Household hazardous wastes include solvents, paints, cleaners, stains, varnishes, pesticides, motor oil, and car batteries. The EPA reports that Americans generate 1.6 million tons of household hazardous waste every year. The average home can have as much as 100 pounds of these wastes in basements, garages, and storage buildings. Many communities hold special collection days for household hazardous waste to ensure that it is disposed of properly.

Methods of Dealing with Hazardous Waste

A variety of techniques exist for safely managing hazardous wastes:

  • Reduction—This approach reduces the waste stream at the outset. Waste generators change their manufacturing and materials in order to produce less waste. For example, a food packaging plant might replace solvent-based adhesives used to seal packages with water-based adhesives.
  • Recycling—Some waste materials become raw material for another process or can be recovered, reused, or sold.
  • Treatment—A variety of chemical, biological, and thermal processes can be applied to neutralize or destroy toxic compounds. For example, microorganisms or chemicals can remove hydrocarbons from contaminated water.
  • Incineration—Hazardous waste can also be burned. Unfortunately incineration has a flaw—as waste is burned, hot gases spew into the atmosphere, carrying toxic materials not consumed by the flames. In 1999 the Clinton administration imposed a ban on new hazardous waste incinerators.
  • Land disposal—Some hazardous wastes are buried in landfills. State and federal regulations require the pre-treatment of most hazardous wastes before they can be disposed of in landfills. These treated materials can only be placed in specially designed land disposal facilities.

In 2001 there were 2,479 treatment, storage, and disposal facilities that treated and/or disposed of 46 million tons of RCRA hazardous waste. Table 4.2 shows the management

Type of businessHow generatedTypical wastes
Drycleaning and laundry plantsCommercial drycleaning processesStill residues from solvent distillation, spent filter cartridges, cooked powder residue, spent solvents, unused perchloroethylene
Furniture/wood manufacturing and refinishingWood cleaning and wax removal, refinishing/stripping, staining, painting, finishing, brush cleaning and spray brush cleaningIgnitable wastes, toxic wastes, solvent wastes, paint wastes
ConstructionPaint preparation and painting, carpentry and floor work, other specialty contracting activities, heavy construction, wrecking and demolition, vehicle and equipment maintenance for construction activitiesIgnitable wastes, toxic wastes, solvent wastes, paint wastes, usedoil, acids/bases
LaboratoriesDiagnostic and other laboratory testingSpent solvents, unused reagents, reaction products, testing samples, contaminated materials
Vehicle maintenanceDegreasing, rust removal, paint preparation, spray booth, spray guns, brush cleaning, paint removal, tank cleanout, installing lead-acid batteries, oil and fluid replacementAcids/bases, solvents, ignitable wastes, toxic wastes, paint wastes, batteries, used oil, unused cleaning chemicals
Printing and allied industriesPlate preparation, stencil preparation for screen printing, photoprocessing, printing, cleanupAcids/bases, heavy metal wastes, solvents, toxic wastes, ink, unused chemicals
Equipment repairDegreasing, equipment, cleaning rust removal, paint preparation, painting, paint removal, spray solvents booth, spray guns, and brush cleaningAcids/bases, toxic wastes, ignitable wastes, paint wastes
Pesticide end-users/application servicesPesticide application and cleanupUsed/unused pesticides, solvent wastes, ignitable wastes, contaminated soil (from spills), contaminated rinsewater, empty containers
Educational and vocational shopsAutomobile engine and body repair, metalworking, graphic arts-plate preparation, woodworkingIgnitable wastes, solvent wastes, acids/bases, paint wastes
Photo processingProcessing and developing negatives/prints, stabilization system cleaningAcid regenerants, cleaners, ignitable wastes, silver
Leather manufacturingHair removal, bating, soaking, tanning, buffing, and dyeingAcids/bases, ignitables wastes, toxic wastes, solvent wastes, unused chemicals
source: Adapted from "Typical Hazardous Waste Generated by Small Businesses," in Managing Your Hazardous Waste: A Guide for Small Businesses, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste, Washington, DC, December 2001

methods used by these facilities. More than 17 million tons of hazardous wastewater were injected into deep underground wells. Figure 4.2 shows a typical Class I (deep) well. There are 163 of these wells located around the country; most are in Texas (78) and Louisiana (18). Eleven of the wells are for commercial hazardous waste injection. They are the only facilities allowed to accept hazardous waste generated off-site. Ten of these wells are

Management methodTons managedPercentage of quantityNumber of facilities*Percentage of facilities*
Deepwell or underground injection17,681,65038.3481.9
Other disposal6,429,34113.92068.3
Aqueous organic treatment4,501,9639.8973.9
Aqueous inorganic treatment3,672,0528.032213.0
Other treatment2,355,2725.156222.7
Landfill/surface impoundment2,089,7014.5692.8
Energy recovery1,700,0783.71054.2
Metals recovery1,461,6063.21917.7
Other recovery1,026,2552.2973.9
Fuel blending923,3322.01174.7
Storage and/or transfer717,7851.663925.8
Solvents recovery425,4590.956422.8
Sludge treatment178,9750.4994.0
Land treatment/application/farming65,5080.1140.6
*Columns may not sum because facilities may have multiple handling methods.
source: "Exhibit 2.6. Management Method, by Quantity of RCRA Hazardous Waste Managed, 2001," in The National Biennial RCRA Hazardous Waste Report (Based on 2001 Data), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, Washington, DC, 2003

located in Gulf Coast states. The other well is in the Great Lakes region. Various types of land disposal and combustion were used to dispose of most of the remaining hazardous wastes from large-quantity generators.


Groundwater is a major source of drinking water for many parts of the United States. If not properly constructed, land disposal facilities for hazardous waste may leak contaminants into the underlying groundwater. The RCRA imposed control over such disposal facilities to minimize their adverse environmental impacts. The EPA, in order to implement the act, requires that owners/operators of hazardous waste sites install wells to monitor the groundwater under their facilities.


Many states have refused to accept toxic trash from states that have not developed their own disposal programs. Their position has been undermined, however, by the U.S. Supreme Court's determination that waste is a commodity in interstate commerce and is subject to federal, not state, regulation.

Because of the problems in finding disposal sites, the United States is sending larger and larger amounts of toxic waste out of the country. Mexico and Central and South America have become preferred spots for disposing of sludge and incinerator ash. However, toxic waste is sometimes mislabeled nontoxic by the time it arrives in South American countries. Until 1988 Africa had been a favorite location for dumping toxic waste. At that time, however, most African countries signed agreements that restricted importation of dangerous materials.

Toxic Chemicals in Industrial Waste

The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) was established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986 (PL 99-499). Under the program, certain industrial facilities using specific toxic chemicals must report annually on their waste management activities and toxic chemical releases. More than 650 toxic chemicals are on the TRI list.

Manufacturing facilities (called "original" industries) have had to report under the TRI program since 1987. In 1998 the TRI requirements were extended to a second group of industries called the "new" industries. These include metal and coal mining, electric utilities burning coal or oil, chemical wholesale distributors, petroleum terminals, bulk storage facilities, RCRA subtitle C hazardous water treatment and disposal facilities, solvent recovery services, and federal facilities. However, only facilities with 10 or more full-time employees that use certain thresholds of toxic chemicals are included.

The 2001 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) Public Data Release Report was published in July 2003. The report states that 26.7 billion pounds (13.4 million tons) of TRI chemicals in production-related waste were managed during 2001. The chemical manufacturing industry accounted for 40 percent of the waste, followed by the primary metals industry with 12 percent and metal mining with 11 percent. The largest amounts of production-related waste were managed by facilities in Texas, Louisiana, and Illinois.

Approximately 36 percent of the waste was recycled, while 13 percent was burned for energy recovery, and 28 percent was treated. The remainder (23 percent) was released to the environment in some way. Figure 5.18 in chapter 5 shows the distribution of TRI releases in 2001. More than half of the releases were to land disposal.

Nonhazardous Industrial Waste

Nonhazardous industrial wastes are neither hazardous wastes nor municipal wastes. Figure 4.3 shows a general breakdown of nonhazardous industrial waste by material, as reported by the Office of Industrial Technology.

Manufacturing produces huge amounts of nonhazardous waste. The paper industry, which uses many chemicals to produce paper, accounts for a very large proportion of manufacturing waste. The metal and chemical industries are also large waste producers. Many big manufacturing plants have sites on their own property where they dispose of waste or treat it so it will not become dangerous. Still others ship it to private disposal sites for dumping or for treatment. Smaller manufacturers might use private waste disposal companies or even the city garbage company.

Mining also produces much waste, most of it rock and tailings. Normally, miners have to move rock to retrieve the ore or minerals. Tailings are left over after miners have sifted through the rocks and dirt for the ore or minerals. Chemicals used to remove minerals from ore become waste after they have done their job. Sometimes these chemical wastes are liquid, and sometimes solid. Either way, they must be disposed of appropriately so as not to pollute the environment.

Almost all (96 to 98 percent) of the waste from gas and oil drilling is water. Water is either pumped out of the ground before the oil is found, or it is found mixed with oil. This water is often salt water and it must be separated from the oil and gas before these natural products can be turned into refined products for use in automobiles or home heating. Other waste comes from mud and rock extracted by the drilling process. Most oil and gas companies dispose of their own waste.

One method is called "surface impoundment," which consists of a large pond in which liquid wastes can be stored and then treated so they can be disposed of safely. Almost all wastes from oil and gas production, mining, and agriculture end up in surface impoundments.

When an electric company burns coal to heat water to make electricity, about 90 percent of the coal is burned up, but it leaves about 10 percent in the form of ash. This waste must then be discarded somewhere.

State and local governments have regulatory responsibility for the management of most nonhazardous wastes. Different states have different regulatory schemes. For example, Texas categorizes nonhazardous industrial wastes into three classes based on their potential harm to the environment and human health. Class 1 wastes include asbestos, ash, and various solids, sludges, and liquids contaminated with nonhazardous chemicals. Every four years the state evaluates its disposal capacity for Class 1 wastes. The last report available was published in 2000 and includes data for 1997. According to Needs Assessment for Industrial Class 1 Nonhazardous Waste Commercial Disposal Capacity in Texas (2000 Update) nearly 83 million tons of Class 1 waste were generated in Texas that year. The vast majority of the waste (96 percent) was liquid.

Class 2 wastes include containers that held Class 1 wastes, depleted aerosol cans, some medical wastes, paper, food wastes, glass, aluminum foil, plastics, Styrofoam, and food packaging resulting from industrial processes. Class 3 wastes include all other chemically inert and insoluble substances such as rocks, brick, glass, dirt, and some rubbers and plastics.

Industries do not have to report how much Class 2 or Class 3 wastes they generate or how they dispose of it. However, municipal solid waste landfills are required to report the receipt of all industrial waste.


Most of the waste that people see is produced by ordinary households throwing out their uneaten food, yesterday's newspapers, packaging materials, lawn clippings, and branches from bushes and trees. This is the type of garbage that the EPA calls municipal solid waste (MSW).

Since 1960 the EPA has collected data on MSW generation and disposal in the United States. According to its report Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures (October 2003), Americans produced 229 million tons of MSW in 2001, down slightly from 230 million tons in 1999, but up from 205 million tons in 1990 and 88.1 million tons in 1960. The largest category of MSW was paper, accounting for 35.7 percent of the total. (See Figure 4.4.)

Per capita generation of MSW was 4.4 pounds per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per day in 1960. (See Figure 4.5.) However, per capita generation was down slightly from 1990, indicating that the rate has leveled off. This is due in large part to growing rates of recovery, which is using trash for some other purpose rather than discarding it. (See Figure 4.6.)

Why Is There So Much Garbage?

The widespread human appetite for all materials has defined this century in much the same way that stone, bronze, and iron characterized previous eras.

—U.S. Geological Survey, Mineral Commodity Summaries, 1998

Most Americans produced little trash until the twentieth century. Food scraps were boiled into soups or fed to animals, which were themselves part of the food chain, providing milk, eggs, or meat for household use or for sale. Durable items were passed on to the next generation or to people more in need. Objects that were of no further use to adults became toys for children. Broken items were repaired or dismantled for reuse. Many Americans possessed the skills required for repairing items. Things that could no longer be used were burned for fuel, especially in the homes of the poor. Even middle-class Americans traded rags to peddlers in exchange for buttons or tea kettles. These "ragmen" worked the streets, begging for or buying for pennies items such as bones, paper, old iron, rags, and bottles. They then sold the "junk" to dealers who marketed it to manufacturers.

Spending time to prolong the useful lives of items and to use scraps saved money. Besides giving away clothes, mending and remaking them, and using them as rags for work, women reworked textiles into useful household furnishings such as quilts, rugs, and upholstery. Rags were also important materials collected for recycling in factories: Paper mills used rags to make paper, and a growing paper industry made it profitable for thrifty homemakers to save rags.

This trade in used goods provided crucial resources for early industrialization, but these early systems of recycling began to pass into history around the turn of the twentieth century. Sanitary reformers and municipal trash collection did away with scavenging. Technology made available cheap and new alternatives. People made fewer things themselves, and they bought more than previous generations had. They saved and repaired less and threw out more.

People of the growing middle class learned to throw things away, attracted by convenience and wanting to avoid any association with scavenging and poverty. Success often meant that one did not have to use secondhand things. As municipalities became responsible for collecting and disposing of refuse, Americans found it easier to throw things out.


Nothing is inherently trash. Trash is produced by a human behavior called sorting. Items in people's lives eventually require a decision—to keep or to discard. Some things go here, and some things go there.

The sorting process varies from person to person, from place to place, and changes over time. What is considered rubbish changes from decade to decade. Some societies value saving things more than others: Nomadic people, who must travel light, save less. During times of war, people often have to conserve and reuse materials, a situation that is not as common during peacetime. Age also plays a role. The youth of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century have more readily adopted the notions of convenience and disposability than their parents and grandparents, and are less likely to conserve.

Sorting is also an issue of class. Trash making creates social differences based on economic status. The wealthy can more readily afford to replace older items with new ones, and discarding things can be a way of demonstrating affluence and power.

At the turn of the millennium, people in developed nations discarded things for reasons unheard of in developing nations or in earlier times—because they no longer wanted them. Disposing of out-of-style clothes and outmoded equipment reflected a worship of newness that was not widespread before the twentieth century. Dumpsters filled with "perfectly good stuff" that was simply not new anymore—stuff of which the owner had tired.

Economic growth during the twentieth century was fueled—in part—by a growing consumer culture that demanded a continual supply of new products, disposables, and individually packaged consumer items. This, combined with "planned obsolescence" on the part of manufacturers, produced increasing volumes of garbage. Colored plastic trash bags represent the contemporary attitude about trash, far from the homemade soup, darned underwear, and flour-sack dresses of an earlier time.

As the United States became richer, the nation produced more garbage and pollution. Between 1960 and 2001 America's population grew by 55 percent, but according to the EPA in Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures, the amount of garbage produced increased 160 percent.

Growing populations, rising incomes, and changing consumption patterns have combined to complicate the waste management problem. Garbage generation expands as a city grows in size and, as consumers earn more money, their demand for consumer goods increases. This includes "convenience foods" with packaging that immediately becomes waste. Other convenience items, such as disposable diapers, also add to the mountains of waste.


Today, most consumer goods are designed for short-term use. This contrasts sharply with the practices of earlier eras when materials were reused or transformed for other uses. In A Social History of Trash (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1999), Susan Strasser notes that more and more things today are being made and sold with the understanding that they will soon become worthless or obsolete.

The volume of waste increases with income—poor neighborhoods generate lower amounts of solid wastes per capita than richer neighborhoods. An inventory of what Americans throw away would reveal valuable metals, paper representing millions of acres of trees, and plastics incorporating highly refined petrochemicals.

Garbage Disposal

The United States is facing a problem with its ever-growing mountains of garbage. America generates more garbage than any other nation on Earth, twice as much per person as in Europe. As with most environmental issues, waste disposal has grown to crisis proportions. The cost of handling garbage is the fourth biggest item—after education and police and fire protection—in many city budgets. Most of the nation's solid waste is dumped in landfills, but sites are rapidly filling up and many are leaking toxic substances into the nation's water supply.

The more that is learned about garbage, the more apparent it is that trucking garbage to landfills does not necessarily eliminate it. As a result, municipal governments worldwide are struggling to find the best methods for managing waste.

The History of Garbage Disposal

Around 500 b.c.e. ("before the common era"), Athens, Greece, issued the first known edict against throwing garbage into the streets and organized the first municipal dumps by mandating that scavengers transport wastes to no less than one mile from the walls of the city. This method was not practiced in medieval Europe (circa 500–1485). Parisians in France and Londoners in England continued to toss trash and sewage out their windows until the 1800s. The west end of London and the west side of Paris became fashionable in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries because the prevailing winds blew west to east, carrying the smell of rotting garbage with them.

Industrialization brought with it a greater need for collection and disposal of refuse. Garbage was transported beyond the city limits and dumped in piles in the countryside. As cities grew, the noxious odors and rat infestations at the dumps became intolerable. Freestanding piles gave way to pits, but that solution soon became unsatisfactory.

In 1874 the first systematic incineration (burning) of municipal waste was tested in England. Burning reduced waste volume by 70 to 90 percent, but the expense of building incinerators and the reduced air quality caused many cities to abandon the method. Waste burial remained the most widely practiced form of disposal.

Throughout the nineteenth century many cities passed antidumping ordinances, but they were largely ignored. Some landowners and merchants resented ordinances, which they considered infringements of their rights. As cities grew so did garbage, becoming not only a public eyesore but a threat to public health.

City leaders began to recognize that they had to do something about the garbage. By the turn of the twentieth century, most major cities had set up garbage collection systems. Many cities introduced incinerators to burn some of the garbage. By the time World War I began in Europe in 1914, about 300 incinerators were operating in the United States and Canada.

Cities located downstream from other cities that were pouring their garbage into rivers sued the upstream cities because the water was polluted. As a result, more and more cities stopped dumping their garbage into rivers and began to build landfills or garbage dumps to get rid of their waste. Many coastal cities began to take their refuse out into the ocean and dump it, although much of the garbage they poured into the sea washed back to pollute the beaches.

Some health officials and reformers knew that pollution was unhealthy and could lead to sickness, but most people were not concerned about the long-term effects of garbage and pollution on the environment. As the twentieth century progressed, however, more and more Americans became concerned that garbage and pollution were harming the environment.

How Is Garbage Disposed of Today?

The EPA's Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures reported that 55.7 percent of MSW goes to land disposal, while 29.7 percent is recovered and 14.7 percent is incinerated. (See Figure 4.7.)


Land disposal includes landfills, land application, and underground injection into deep wells. Landfilling is the most widely used method. Landfills are areas set aside specifically for garbage dumping. There are several types of landfills. In the most common type, garbage is dumped into a large pit and ultimately buried with earth. In land application, waste is taken to a designated area and spread over the surface of the land. Garbage may also be dumped onto a waste pile on the ground where it is stored and may eventually be treated.

Landfills are popular because, when compared with the cost of alternative disposal methods, dumping waste in the ground is a relatively cheap solution to an immediate problem. MSW discards to land disposal grew steadily from the 1960s to the 1980s and then declined through the early 1990s as use of other disposal methods increased. (See Figure 4.8.) However, land disposal rebounded somewhat in the late 1990s before leveling off again in the early 2000s.

In January 2004 Biocycle magazine published the results of its 14th annual State of Garbage in America survey. The magazine reported that in 2002 there were 1,767 landfills operating in the United States, down from 2,142 in 2000 and approximately 8,000 in 1988. (See Table 4.3.) Estimates of remaining landfill capacity vary greatly from state to state.

The growing amount of waste has led to a depletion of landfill capacity. Many of the nation's active landfills will reach capacity and have to close over the coming decades. Cities that exhaust their landfills are forced to find sites elsewhere, usually in more remote areas, which increases cost for transportation and landfill fees.

New landfills are becoming harder to find. Many local officials blame the lack of new facilities on public opposition, the "not in my backyard" syndrome, rather than a lack of available space. Landfills, like prisons and interstate highways, have never been welcome in neighborhoods.

During the late twentieth century, interest in recycling grew, and most states began making recycling an important part of waste collection and disposal. Nonetheless, the nation's landfills began filling up and new ones had to be constructed. Most states began sending some of their garbage to other states that would accept it, or even to other countries. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, some states and countries no longer accepted other people's garbage.

Some states have tried to enact bans on importing garbage into their states, but the U.S. Supreme Court, in Chemical Waste Management v. Hunt (112 S. Ct. 2009, 1992), ruled that such shipments are protected by the constitutional right to conduct commerce across state borders, because states that accept garbage charge fees for garbage dumping.


Regulations passed under the RCRA, which took effect in 1993, required landfill operators to do several things to lessen the chance of pollution. The most important standard requires all landfills to monitor groundwater for contaminants. According to the EPA, less than one-third of the nation's toxic waste dumps in 2000 met

StateNumber of MSW landfillsAverage landfill tip fee ($/ton)Total landfill capacity remaining (tons)Number of WTE plantsAverage WTE tip fee ($/ton)
New Hampshire106815,000,000281
New Jersey126040,000,000560
New Mexico35n/a190,966,14210
New York265090,000,0001065
North Carolina4130100,000,000150
North Dakota1426.56n/a0
Rhode Island241.50n/a0
South Carolina1927109,534,0234n/a
South Dakota153016,757,57610
West Virginia18435,674,3300
1Tonnage based on conversion from cubic yards reported (conversion of 3.3 cubic yards/ton)
2Landfill capacity remaining exceeds ten years
3Waste-to-energy plant burns tires for fuel
42001 data from MSW Management
source: Scott M. Kaufman, Nora Goldstein, Karsten Millrath, and Nickolas J. Themelis, "Table 7. Number of Municipal Solid Waste Landfills and Waste to Energy Plants, Average Tip Fees, and Capacity by State for 2002," in "The State of Garbage in America," in BioCycle, vol. 45, no. 1, January 2004

requirements under disposal laws for monitoring underground water supplies near their sites.

The rules also require plastic liners for dump sites, and all debris must be covered with soil to prevent odors and trash from being blown away. Methane gas must be monitored, and the owner is responsible for cleanup of any contamination. To prevent pollution of the environment, these rules must be observed for a 30-year period after the landfill is closed.

Although the government plans to close all dumps that fail to meet requirements, and many landfills have been shut down at least in part because of noncompliance, the process has been slow due to a lack of resources to prosecute violators. The virtual disappearance of affordable environment-impairment liability insurance has also forced many dumps to shut down.

Newer, state-of-the-art landfills are now being built with multiple liners to prevent leaks and with equipment to treat emissions. This is very expensive. Experts point out that many of these landfills will have to accept waste from a wide region to be financially viable.

Experts agree that even the most advanced landfills may eventually leak, releasing hazardous materials into surface or underground water. Methane, a flammable gas, is produced when organic matter decomposes in the absence of oxygen. If not properly vented or controlled, it can cause explosions and underground fires that smolder for years. Increasingly, this gas is being recovered through pipes inserted into landfills and distributed or used to generate energy.

Landfills of the Twenty-First Century

Landfills are, and will continue to be, the cornerstone of the nation's waste services system. However, a number of changes will occur in site design and function. Sites will become more standardized, especially in the areas of liners and in the collection of landfill gas, which is expected to stimulate the development of new landfill gas-to-energy plants.

The number of landfills is expected to decrease due to the stricter standards and the need for operators to provide assurance that they can fund closure, cleanup, and security in the event of contamination. In many cases, it will be difficult to justify small-scale sites economically. The result will be fewer, but larger and more regional, operations. Most waste will move away from its point of generation, resulting in increased interdependence among communities and states in waste disposal. More waste will cross state lines.

The volume of waste traditionally handled at landfills will also decrease. Landfills will provide diverse services—burial of waste, bioremediation, recycling facilities, leachate collection (contaminants picked up through the leaching of soil), and gas recovery. To make landfills more pleasing to neighborhoods, operators will establish larger buffer zones and more green space and will show more sensitivity to land-use compatibility and landscaping.

Source Reduction

Many experts believe that the primary solution to the world's mounting garbage problem is "source reduction," or waste prevention. The less waste people create, the less there is to throw away. Source reduction involves minimizing the amount or toxicity of materials in products and/or reducing the amount of wastes produced during manufacturing. Manufacturing, packaging, or processing goods in certain ways "up front" will generate less refuse to be discarded.

Nearly $1 out of every $12 Americans spend for food and beverages pays for packaging. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), packaging is the second largest portion of the cost of marketing food (advertising is the largest portion). The increasing numbers of women in the workforce and changes in family structure have resulted in greater demand for convenience products—carry-out meals and frozen and vacuum-packed foods. One way to reduce waste is to trim the amount of packaging.

Soft drink consumption has also risen, increasing waste in the form of cans and plastic containers. Aluminum, the most abundant metal manufactured on Earth, was first refined into a valuable product in the 1820s. Its use has continually escalated and beverage cans are the largest single use of aluminum. They are also a source of much waste.

The advent of low-priced petrochemicals in the early twentieth century ushered in the age of plastics. Several times more plastics—a family of more than forty-six types—are now produced in the United States than aluminum and all other nonferrous metals combined. Most of these plastics are nonbiodegradable and, once discarded, remain relatively intact for many years.

Many Americans claim they would pay more for a product with environmental benefits. Marketing that considers these consumer preferences is known as "green marketing." "Green design" can make products more environmentally safe.


Composting is a form of source reduction that involves the mixing of vegetable and organic refuse in order to speed the natural decomposition into fiber and micronutrients. For example, a compost pile in one's backyard recycles food scraps and lawn clippings that are deposited and mixed periodically. The decomposed product can then be used as fertilizer for the garden. Organic waste gives off energy in the form of heat when microorganisms metabolize the waste, causing it to lose between 40 and 75 percent of its original volume. After decontamination and refinement processes have been completed, the finished product is often used in landscaping, land reclamation, landfill cover, farming, and for nurseries. About one-quarter of household trash is organic material—food and yard waste.

Composting is a particularly promising method of disposal of household wastes in developing countries and is also very advanced in Europe. Yard waste is a prime candidate for composting due to its high moisture content. Because compost contains moisture and micronutrients, slows soil erosion, and improves water retention, it is an alternative to the use of environmentally dangerous chemical fertilizers. According to the EPA report Municipal Solid Waste in the United States: 2001 Facts and Figures, approximately 50 percent of the U.S. population is subject to state legislation discouraging the disposal of yard trimmings. The tonnage of yard trimmings dumped in land-fills has declined, most likely because such legislation prompts more people to use backyard composting and mulching lawn mowers.


The terms "recovery" and "recycling" are often used interchangeably. Both mean that an item is not discarded as trash, but reused in some way. Recovery reduces the amount of garbage requiring disposal, thus saving landfill space and conserving the energy that would be used for incineration. Recovery also reduces environmental degradation and chemicals that pollute water resources, generates jobs and small-scale enterprise, reduces dependence on foreign imports of metals, and conserves water. Some analysts claim that more than half of consumer waste could be economically recycled.

However, recycling sometimes requires more energy and water consumption than waste disposal. It depends on how far the materials must be transported and what is necessary to "clean" them before they can be reused. Demand for some recyclable materials is weak, making them economically unfeasible to recycle in a market-driven society.

According to the EPA's report 68 million tons of MSW was recycled in 2001, up from 33.2 million tons in 1990. (See Figure 4.9.) This was an average recycling rate of 1.3 pounds per person per day. Recycling rates for various materials are shown in Figure 4.10 for 2001 and previous years dating back to 1970. Automobile batteries are the most frequently recycled item with a recycling rate of 94 percent in 2001. Recycling for all other materials shown has increased dramatically since 1970.

Every state has some type of recycling program. The oldest recycling law is the Oregon Recycling Opportunity Act, passed in 1983 and put into effect in 1986. A growing number of states require that many items sold must be made from recycled products. According to the American Forest and Paper Association Web site (http://www.afandpa.org/) at least 12 states require that recycled paper be used to make newspapers; many require that recycled materials be used in making telephone directories, trash bags, glass, and plastic containers. Most states have goals to recycle from 25 to 70 percent of MSW. Rhode Island (70 percent) and New Jersey (60 percent) have the highest recycling goals of all the states; Maryland had the lowest (20 percent). More than 30 states bar some recyclable materials from being thrown into landfills. These include car and boat batteries, grass cuttings, tires, used oil, glass, plastic containers, and newspapers. Almost all books and pamphlets printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office are printed on recycled paper.


Some observers think incinerators are the best alternative to landfills. The EPA reported that, in 2001, nearly 15 percent of MSW in the United States was burned. (See Figure 4.7.) When an incinerator burns waste, it reduces the amount of garbage. About 75 percent of the weight of the garbage burns off. Some incinerators do more than burn garbage; by using the heat from the burning garbage to make energy, they can also be waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities. WTE incinerators are preferred over older incinerator models because they use an improved combustion process, have better pollution-control technology, and produce energy from trash. Table 4.3 shows the number of WTE facilities in each state in 2002. There were 107 WTE plants in the United States that year, most in Minnesota, Florida, and New York.

Incinerators are very expensive to build. The country's largest incinerator, in Detroit, Michigan, cost $438 million in 1988. This huge incinerator produces enough steam to heat half of Detroit's central business district and enough electricity to supply 40,000 homes. However, most experts agree that energy recovery from MSW has the potential for making only a limited contribution to the nation's overall energy production. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has set a goal for waste-derived energy at 2 percent of the total supply by 2010.

During the operation of a typical incinerator, trucks dump waste into a pit; the waste is moved to the furnace by a crane; and the furnace burns the waste at a very high temperature, heating a boiler that produces steam for generating electricity and heat. Ash collects at the bottom of the furnace where it is later removed and dumped in a landfill. (See Figure 4.11.)

Most experts believe that incineration can never serve as a primary method of garbage disposal because it produces (1) residue that must then be transferred to a landfill, and (2) poisonous gases, primarily dioxin and mercury, which are increasingly being found to be dangerous. Incineration may, however, be useful to augment landfill and recycling. WTE plants also have these problems. Mercury is largely impossible to screen with pollution-control devices such as scrubbers (an air pollution device that uses a spray of water or reactant to trap pollutants). In the process of burning paints, fluorescent lights, batteries, or electronics, mercury is released as a gaseous vapor that is poisonous to humans and to the environment. Most of the first incinerators built have been retired because they failed to meet subsequent air quality standards. Some analysts are not satisfied that the emissions problems have been solved, especially the problems of burning materials containing chlorine. Chlorine molecules, when burned, create dioxin, a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

Regulators are also concerned about the acid gases and heavy metals released from WTE plants. Scrubbers reduce but do not eliminate these emissions. Even when the toxic elements are largely removed from emissions, the resulting ash is still toxic and, when put in landfills, can leach into the groundwater. Thus, toxic compounds in incinerator ash are simply removed from one environmental medium to enter another. Toxic compounds still end up in the soil. By law, toxic residue created by burning waste in incinerators must be treated as hazardous waste and must not be dumped in ordinary landfills.


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA; PL 96-510) established the Superfund to pay for cleaning up abandoned disposal sites. The Superfund—initially a $1.6 billion, five-year program—was intended to clean up leaking dumps that jeopardized groundwater and posed public health risks. During the act's original mandate, only six sites were cleaned up, and when it expired in 1985, many observers viewed the program as a billion-dollar fiasco rampant with scandal and mismanagement. The negative publicity surrounding the program increased public awareness of the magnitude of the cleanup job required in America to reduce the risk to public health. Consequently, the Superfund has been reauthorized several times since its establishment.

A Huge Project

CERCLA requires the government to maintain a National Priorities List (NPL) of sites that pose the highest potential threat to human health and the environment. The NPL is constantly changing as new sites are officially added (finalized) and other sites are deleted. During the early 1980s hundreds of sites were added to the NPL each year. By 1992 a total of more than 1,200 sites had been added. Over the years sites were deleted as clean-ups were accomplished. Table 4.4 shows NPL site listings and clean-up milestones achieved by fiscal year (October through September) for 1992 through 2004. These data were reported in April 2004, meaning that only data for October 2003 through April 2004 are included under fiscal year 2004.

As of April 2004 the NPL, which is maintained by the EPA, includes 1,238 sites (158 federal sites and 1080 non-federal sites). The states containing the most NPL sites are New Jersey (113), California (96), Pennsylvania (92), New York (90), Michigan (67), and Florida (51). These six states account for just over 40 percent of all NPL final sites.

In 2003 the EPA proposed 14 new sites be added to the NPL based on preliminary investigations. Officials estimate that about one-fourth of these sites will actually be added to the NPL. As shown in Table 4.4, in general, the number of sites proposed for the NPL each year is out-pacing the number deleted each year.

According to the EPA, more than three times as many Superfund sites were cleaned up between 1993 and 2000 than in all of the prior years of the program combined. However, many NPL sites are still years away from being cleaned up. The EPA estimates that 85 percent of the NPL sites will be cleaned up by 2008. Completion for the remaining 15 percent of the sites may take well beyond 2008.

When the Superfund was created, the program was expected to deal with a limited number of sites over a relatively short time. It eventually became clear that the number of sites needing attention was much larger than

Sites proposed to the NPL305236927203437404591411
Sites finalized on the NPL033433113181743392919200
Sites deleted from the NPL21213253432202319301796
Partial deletions*067354776
Construction completions88686168648887858747424010
A fiscal year is October 1 through September 30.
Fiscal year 2004 includes actions and milestones achieved from October 1, 2003 to the present.
Partial deletion totals are not applicable until fiscal year 1996, when the policy was first implemented.
*These totals represent the total number of partial deletions by fiscal year and may include multiple partial deletions at a site. Currently, there are 45 partial deletions at 37 sites.
source: "Number of NPL Site Actions and Milestones," in National Priorities List, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, April 27, 2004 [Online] http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/query/queryhtm/nplfy.htm [accessed May 5, 2004]

originally believed and that the program could run several more decades. The number of sites reported has declined steadily since 1985. The percentage of sites that the EPA believes warrant further consideration after initial investigation has remained relatively constant since 1984, with about 40 percent of the recommended sites needing further action. The average site cleanup takes approximately 12 years to complete.

What Is the Cost and Who Pays the Bill for Superfund?


Funding for the Super-fund program is derived through two major sources: the Superfund Trust Fund and monies appropriated from the federal government's general fund.

The Superfund Trust Fund was set up as part of the original Superfund legislation of 1980. It was designed to help the EPA pay for cleanups and related program activities. Table 4.5 shows the revenue going into the Superfund Trust Fund each year from 1993 through 2002. Until 1995 the Superfund Trust Fund was financed primarily by dedicated taxes collected from companies in the chemical and crude oil industries. The system was extremely unpopular with many corporations arguing that environmentally responsible companies should not have to pay for the mistakes of others. In 1995 the tax was eliminated.

The Superfund Trust Fund is also financed through cost recoveries—money the EPA recovers through legal settlements with responsible parties. The EPA is authorized to compel parties responsible for creating hazardous pollution, such as waste generators, waste haulers, site owners, or site operators, to clean up the sites. If these parties cannot be found, or if a settlement cannot be reached, the Superfund program finances the cleanup. After completing a cleanup, the EPA can take action against the responsible parties to recover costs and replenish the fund. The average cost of cleanup is about $30 million, large enough to make it worthwhile for parties to pursue legal means to spread the costs among large numbers of responsible parties. Many cleanups involve dozens of parties.

Disputes have arisen between industries and cities over who is responsible for a cleanup, and numerous lawsuits have been filed by industries against cities over responsibility for what is usually a huge expense. Many businesses and municipalities may be unable to assume such expense. The EPA reports that the government currently collects only one-fifth of the cleanup costs that could be recovered from polluters under the Superfund law. According to the EPA, in many cases, the polluters have disappeared or are unable to pay. In other cases, the agency lacks the staff or evidence to proceed with lawsuits.

All of these factors have resulted in only modest amounts of money being collected for the Superfund Trust Fund through cost recoveries. Total revenue into the Fund dropped from 2.4 billion dollars in 1993 to $368 million in 2002 as shown in Table 4.5. However, the EPA has continued to add sites to the NPL that require cleanup. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) analysis conducted in 2003, the EPA consistently spent between $1.3 and $1.7 billion each year from 1993 to 2002 to operate the Superfund Program. The GAO reports that the unexpended balance of the Superfund Trust Fund stood at only $3.4 billion at the end of fiscal year 2002. At current rates of spending the Fund is expected to be depleted in a short amount of time.

In recent years the EPA has increasingly relied on money appropriated from the federal government's general fund to pay for NPL cleanups. During the early 2000s the general fund accounted for roughly half of all appropriations to the Superfund Program as shown in Figure 4.12. This means that all American taxpayers are increasingly paying to clean up hazardous waste sites under the Superfund Program. The GAO estimates that the general fund will supply about 80 percent of the

Fiscal year
Revenue source1993199419951996199719981999200020012002
Cost recoveries214231285276341343338239205248
Interest on unexpended balance165202359388359313233245223111
Fines and penalties4334354121
source: "Table 1: Revenue into the Superfund Trust Fund, Fiscal Years 1993 Through 2002," in Superfund Program: Current Status and Future Fiscal Challenges, GAO-03-850, U.S. General Accounting Office, Washington, DC, July 31, 2003

monies needed for the Superfund Program in EPA's fiscal year 2004 budget.

Some critics have called for the federal government to reinstate dedicated taxes against petroleum and chemical corporations to fund the Superfund Program, instead of burdening taxpayers. The GAO notes that Congress is reluctant to appropriate more general fund monies to the Superfund Program and fears that costs will continue to escalate as the EPA adds more sites to the NPL. A major complaint is that the Superfund Program lacks an effective system for indicating the progress that it is making toward cleaning up the nation's hazardous waste sites. Congress has asked the EPA to develop performance indicators that could help them make better funding decisions for the Superfund Program. An EPA advisory council is expected to make its recommendations during 2004.


Many former industrial sites have become eyesores of urban scenery. These trash-strewn plots, concentrated mostly in the northeast and Midwest, are called brown-fields and, as of EPA estimates in early 2004, numbered more than 400,000 sites. The EPA defines brownfields as abandoned, idled, or underused industrial or commercial sites where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived environmental contamination.

Many of the properties are polluted. They are shunned by developers, often stalling efforts to revive poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Until 1995, developers and buyers had avoided some 38,000 sites listed as possible targets under the Superfund Law, which says that anyone involved in the management of a property can be held liable for the entire cost of cleanup. Many of those sites had, in fact, been passed over by the EPA as not contaminated enough for Superfund action. Nonetheless, many of those properties were deemed untouchable by the real estate industry. A 1995 survey of the American Bankers Association showed that 83 percent of smaller banks had refused to make loans to projects because of concerns about environmental liability.

To help the reclamation effort, in 1995 the EPA removed 25,000 of the least-polluted sites from the list. The sites required some type of cleanup but would not be subjected to the tougher Superfund standards. In addition to restoring the environment, the purpose of reclamation programs is to encourage the reuse of abandoned sites, revitalize cities, create jobs, and generate municipal tax revenues. Redevelopment of polluted sites is becoming a thriving business. Experts estimate that about one-third of real estate sales involve sifting databases of environmental agencies for records of toxic spills before a real estate transaction can take place. Sensing a new business possibility, several insurance companies have created divisions offering policies that protect developers of polluted real estate against unforeseen cleanup costs or lawsuits.

In 1997 U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the Taxpayer Relief Acts (PL 105-34 and PL 105-32), both of which included new tax incentives to spur the cleanup and redevelopment of brownfields. The acts enable taxpayers to consider any qualified environmental remediation expenditure as tax deductions in the year paid rather than having to be capitalized over time.


Nuclear waste includes a wide range of materials with varying levels of radioactivity. There is currently no agreed-upon safe way to dispose of nuclear waste. None of the current options guarantees protection of the biosphere from radiation, which can linger for many thousands of years. Because of the scientific and political difficulties with geologic burial and other methods, aboveground "temporary" storage, despite its dangers, may remain the only option well into the twenty-first century.

Low-Level Radioactive Waste

Low-level waste includes items that have become contaminated with radioactive material or have become radioactive through exposure to neutron radiation. This waste typically consists of contaminated protective shoe covers and clothing, wiping rags, mops, filters, reactor water treatment residues, equipment and tools, luminous dials, medical tubes, swabs, injection needles, syringes, and laboratory animal carcasses and tissues. The radioactivity can range from just above background levels found in nature, to very highly radioactive as in the case of, for example, parts from inside the reactor vessel in a nuclear power plant.

Low-level waste is typically stored on-site by licensees, either until it has decayed away and can be disposed of as ordinary trash, or until amounts are large enough for shipment to a low-level waste disposal site in containers approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation. As shown in Figure 4.13 approximately 1.4 million cubic feet of commercial low-level waste was shipped to disposal facilities in 1998, the latest year for which data are available.

Most low-level radioactive waste decays in less than 50 years. Until the 1960s, the United States dumped low-level wastes into the ocean. The first commercial site to house such waste was opened in 1962, and by 1971 six sites were licensed for disposal. By 1979 only three commercial low-level waste sites were still operating—Hanford, Washington; Beatty, Nevada; and Barnwell, South Carolina. The volume of low-level waste increased during the initial years (1963–80) of commercially generated waste disposal; this, coupled with the threatened closing of the South Carolina site, prompted Congress to pass the Low Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980 (PL 96-573), calling for the establishment of a national system of such facilities. Since then, volume has decreased. The act made every state responsible for finding a low-level disposal site by 1986 for wastes generated within its borders. It also gave states the right to bar imports of low-level wastes if they were engaged in regional compacts for waste disposal. The disposal of high-level wastes, however, remains a federal responsibility.


The 1980 law encouraged states to organize themselves into compacts to develop new low-level waste facilities. As of 2004 ten compacts serving forty-three states had been approved by Congress. Compacts and unaffiliated states have confronted significant barriers to developing disposal sites, however, including: public health and environmental concerns, antinuclear sentiment, substantial financial requirements, political issues, and "not in my backyard" campaigns by some citizen activists.

No compact or state had successfully developed a new disposal facility for low-level wastes by early 2004. Certain conditions have led some states to remain uncommitted to disposal development and to consider other options. The reopening of the Barnwell, South Carolina, facility in 1995 eased some of the pressure on the states. The emergence in 1995 of new private-sector nuclear waste handlers—such as Envirocare of Utah, Inc.—has increased interest in the possibility of privately operated waste disposal facilities. Collectively, the Barnwell; Richland, Washington (operated by American Ecology Corporation); and Envirocare facilities provide disposal capacity for almost all types of low-level wastes.

The number of DOE shipments of low-level waste is projected to decrease throughout the remainder of the decade. (See Figure 4.14.) According to the DOE, shipments of low-level radioactive wastes accounted for less than 0.5 percent of all hazardous material shipments in 2001.

Spent Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste

The most dangerous radioactive waste is irradiated uranium from commercial nuclear power plants. Spent fuel, the used uranium fuel removed from a nuclear reactor, is far from being completely "spent." It contains highly penetrating and toxic radioactivity and requires isolation from living things for thousands of years. It still contains significant amounts of uranium, as well as plutonium created during the nuclear fission process. Spent fuel is a serious problem for nuclear power plants that will be decommissioned before a long-term, high-level waste disposal repository is available.

Unless a temporary site becomes available, decommissioned plants have the following options:

  • The fuel can be left in place.
  • On-site storage casks can be used. This is not an option for hot fuel (fuel that is less than five years out of the core).
  • The spent fuel can be shipped abroad for reprocessing. France, which is heavily dependent on nuclear power, developed the technology to reprocess spent fuel, something not available in the United States. In 1993 the British government also opened a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant that reprocesses spent fuel from nuclear power generators around the world. Nuclear watch groups and some Americans fear that shipping spent fuel abroad will undermine efforts to halt the spread of nuclear arms because the process of transporting such materials increases the possibility for theft or accident.
  • The unit can continue to operate.
  • The fuel can be shipped to a monitored retrievable storage facility, if there is one available.

Figure 4.15 shows the major sites storing spent nuclear fuel as of December 2003. The Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory is the main storage site, accounting for 54 percent of the total stored.

The Vestiges of Nuclear Disarmament

Nuclear disarmament resulted in the dismantling of much of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the resulting need to store tons of plutonium. The federal government has proceeded to take apart as many as 15,000 warheads with intentions of eventually storing them at one of two former nuclear weapons–making plants—Pantex, near Amarillo, Texas, and Savannah River, South Carolina. DOE officials predict that dismantling will continue through 2003. The government must then decontaminate buildings used at those facilities, dispose of millions of gallons of boiling radioactive water, and decontaminate hundreds of square miles of desert at the Nevada nuclear test site.

In 2000 the United States and Russia agreed that each country would dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus weapons-grade plutonium by 2019. The Clinton administration had intended to immobilize permanently most of the plutonium in glass or ceramic to prevent its potential use in nuclear weapons. The remainder of the plutonium was to be converted to a mixed-oxide fuel (MOX) for use in commercial nuclear power reactors. MOX fuel has been used in existing reactors in Europe, but never tried in the United States.

In April 2002 the Bush administration announced plans to convert all of the plutonium to MOX fuel. The DOE proposed construction of a MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River site in South Carolina. This facility was to be operational by 2007. The governor of the state fought the plan in court and threatened to use the state police to stop waste shipments from entering South Carolina. He feared that the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility would never be funded and that the waste would be permanently stored in South Carolina.

As of 2004 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not granted final approval for construction of the facility. In addition the project is being fought in court by environmental groups including Georgians Against Nuclear Energy. Even if the project is approved, federal budget cuts are expected to delay the operational date to 2008. The utility company Duke Power has announced that it plans to test MOX combustion at one of its power plants in 2005 and begin full-scale use of MOX fuel by 2010.


In the United States the federal government is focusing on two locations as eventual long-term nuclear waste repositories. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeastern New Mexico would store defense-generated transuranic waste (waste left over from research and production of nuclear weapons), while Nevada's Yucca Mountain would house civilian nuclear waste.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) became the world's first deep depository for nuclear waste when it received its first shipment of waste on March 26, 1999. This large facility is located near Carlsbad, New Mexico. WIPP is 655 meters below the Earth's surface in the salt beds of the Salado Formation and is intended to house up to 6.25 million cubic feet of transuranic waste for more than 10,000 years.

Under congressional mandate, the WIPP facility does not accept commercial or high-level waste; it only accepts transuranic waste. More than 99 percent of transuranic waste is temporarily stored in drums at nuclear defense sites around the country. Waste shipped to WIPP is tracked by satellite and moved only at night, when traffic is lighter. It can be transported only in good weather and must be routed around major cities. Figure 4.16 shows a tractor trailer container transporting radioactive waste to WIPP.

As of May 1, 2004, the WIPP facility has received 2,543 shipments of radioactive waste and disposed of 19,793 cubic meters. By 2035, barring court challenges, almost 40,000 truckloads of nuclear waste will be trucked across the country to WIPP.

Yucca Mountain

The centerpiece of the federal government's plan to dispose of highly radioactive waste is a proposed facility at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. (See Figure 4.17.) The Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 was amended in 1987 to require the secretary of energy to investigate the site and, if suitable, recommend to the president that the site be established. The investigation of Yucca Mountain has taken a long time and cost more than $3 billion. In February 2002 DOE secretary Spencer Abraham recommended the site to President Bush as a storage facility for nuclear waste. Despite intense protests from environmentalists and Nevada politicians, the president accepted the recommendation. The DOE hopes to bury 77,000 tons of radioactive waste at the Yucca site beginning in 2009.

Yucca Mountain is a 1,200-foot-high volcanic ridge located on federally owned land in the desert approximately 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The repository would be constructed 1,200 feet below the land surface and 800 feet above the groundwater table.


For the Yucca Mountain Repository to be built, the DOE must satisfactorily demonstrate to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the combination of the site and the repository design complies with the standards set forth by the EPA. The EPA's standard is based on a new approach of using numerical probabilities to establish requirements for containing radioactivity within the repository. Their quantitative terms are as follows:

  • Cumulative releases of radioactivity from a repository must have a likelihood of less than 1 chance in 10 of exceeding limits established in the standard, and a likelihood of less than 1 chance in 1,000 of exceeding 10 times the limits, for a period of 10,000 years.
  • Exposures of radiation to individual members of the public for 1,000 years must not exceed specified limits.
  • Limits are placed on the concentration of radioactivity for 1,000 years after disposal from the repository to a nearby source of groundwater that currently supplies drinking water for thousands of persons, and is irreplaceable.
  • Prescribed technical or institutional procedures or steps must provide confidence that the containment requirements are likely to be met.

Crisis in the Industry

The long delay in providing disposal sites for nuclear wastes, coupled with the accelerated pace at which nuclear plants are being retired, has created a crisis in the industry. Several aging plants are being maintained—at a cost of $20 million a year for each reactor—simply because there is no place to send the waste once the plants are decommissioned. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982, the DOE was scheduled to begin picking up waste on January 31, 1998.

The utilities have been paying $.01 per 10 kilowatt-hours of nuclear power generated by the reactors to finance a repository. Although the 1987 waste amendment designated Yucca Mountain as the site, little progress was made in approving the project. In 1996 the U.S. Court of Appeals, in Indiana Michigan Power Co. v. Department of Energy (88F3d1272 [D.C. Ctr., 1996]), ruled that the nuclear waste act created an obligation for the DOE to start disposing of utilities' waste no later than January 31, 1998. Because the DOE missed the deadline, more than twenty utilities have sued.

In February 1999 the DOE announced that because it was unable to receive nuclear waste for permanent storage, it would take ownership of the waste and pay temporary storage costs with money the utilities have paid to develop the permanent repository. The waste will stay where it currently is being stored, and the DOE will pay the storage costs. Even without the expense of temporary storage, the nuclear waste fund (the money collected from the utilities) is many billions short of what Yucca Mountain is expected to cost.

A Serious Leak of Radioactive Waste—Hanford

In 1997 scientists discovered that about 900,000 gallons of radioactive waste had leaked into the soil from 68 of the 149 tanks at the nuclear weapons plant in Hanford, Washington. Eventually, all the tanks are expected to leak. The leak contaminated underground water moving toward the nearby Columbia River. Managers at the plant maintained that the leaks were insignificant because radioactive materials would be trapped by the area above the water table (the "vadose zone"). Furthermore, officials had been saying for decades that no waste from the tanks would reach the groundwater in the next 10,000 years.

However, as of early 2004 government officials estimate that groundwater contamination affects approximately eighty square miles of the site, prompting comparisons of the situation to the Chernobyl disaster. (In April 1986 an explosion at the nuclear power plant located in the Soviet [now the Ukraine] town of Chernobyl killed thirty people.) A threatened lawsuit by the State of Washington against the DOE over the leaks at the Hanford site resulted in an agreement to clean up the two

Great deal %Fair amount %Only a little %Not at all %No opinion %
2004 Mar 8–114826215*
2003 Mar 3–55128165*
2002 Mar 4–75329153*
2001 Mar 5–75827123*
2000 Apr 3–9642574*
1999 Apr 13–14632773*
1999 Mar 12–145529115*
1991 Apr 11–1462211151
1990 Apr 5–86322105*
1989 May 4–7692163*
source: "Please tell me if you personally worry about this problem a great deal, a fair amount, only a little, or not at all. Contamination of soil and water by toxic waste?," in Poll Topics and Trends: Environment, The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ, March 17, 2004 [Online] www.gallup.com [accessed March 30, 2004]

indoor pools near the Columbia River by 2007. Progress reports on site clean-up are available at http://www.hanford.gov/cp/gpp.


In March 2004 the Gallup Organization conducted its annual poll regarding environmental issues. Participants were asked to express the level of concern they feel about various environmental problems. As shown in Table 4.6 less than half of those asked felt a great deal of concern about the possibility of contamination of soil and water by toxic waste. This percentage has, in general, fallen steadily since its high point of 69 percent in 1989. Nearly as many people (47 percent) felt either a fair amount or a little amount of concern about this problem. A small percentage (5 percent) expressed no concern at all.

Waste Disposal

views updated May 29 2018

Waste disposal

Waste management is the handling of discarded materials. Recycling and composting, which transform waste into useful products, are forms of waste management. The management of waste also includes disposal, such as landfilling.

Waste can be almost anything, including food, leaves, newspapers, bottles, construction debris, chemicals from a factory, candy wrappers, disposable diapers, old cars, or radioactive materials. People have always produced waste, but as industry and technology have evolved and the human population has grown, waste management has become increasingly complex.

A primary objective of waste management today is to protect the public and the environment from potentially harmful effects of waste. Some waste materials are normally safe, but can become hazardous if not managed properly. For example, 1 gal (3.75 l) of used motor oil can potentially contaminate one million gal (3,790,000 l) of drinking water .

Every individual, business, or organization must make decisions and take some responsibility regarding the management of his or her waste. On a larger scale, government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels enact and enforce regulations governing waste management. These agencies also educate the public about proper waste management. In addition, local government agencies may provide disposal or recycling services, or they may hire or authorize private companies to perform those functions.

Throughout history, there have been four basic methods of managing waste: dumping it, burning it, finding another use for it (reuse and recycling), and not creating the waste in the first place (waste prevention). How those four methods are utilized depends on the wastes being managed. Municipal solid waste is different from industrial, agricultural, or mining waste. Hazardous waste is a category that should be handled separately, although it sometimes is generated with the other types.

The first humans did not worry much about waste management. They simply left their garbage where it dropped. However, as permanent communities developed, people began to dispose of their waste in designated dumping areas. The use of such "open dumps" for garbage is still common in many parts of the world. Open dumps have major disadvantages, however, especially in heavily populated areas. Toxic chemicals can filter down through a dump and contaminate groundwater . The liquid that filters through a dump or landfill is called leachate. Dumps may also generate methane, a flammable and explosive gas produced when organic wastes decompose under anaerobic (oxygen-poor) conditions.

The landfill, also known as the "sanitary landfill," was invented in England in the 1920s. At a landfill, the garbage is compacted and covered at the end of every day with several inches of soil . Landfilling became common in the United States in the 1940s. By the late 1950s, it was the dominant method for disposing municipal solid waste in the nation.

Early landfills had significant problems with leachate and methane, but those have largely been resolved at facilities built since about the early 1970s. Well-engineered landfills are lined with several feet of clay and with thick plastic sheets. Leachate is collected at the bottom, drained through pipes, and processed. Methane gas is also safely piped out of many landfills.

The dumping of waste does not just take place on land. Ocean dumping, in which barges carry garbage out to sea, was once used as a disposal method by some United States coastal cities and is still practiced by some nations. Sewage sludge, or waste material from sewage treatment, was dumped at sea in huge quantities by New York City as recently as 1992, but this is now prohibited in the United States. Also called biosolids, sewage sludge is not generally considered solid waste, but it is sometimes composted with organic municipal solid waste.

Burning has a long history in municipal solid waste management. Some American cities began to burn their garbage in the late nineteenth century in devices called cremators. These were not very efficient, however, and cities went back to dumping and other methods. In the 1930s and 1940s, many cities built new types of more-efficient garbage burners known as incinerators. The early incinerators were rather dirty in terms of their emissions of air pollutants, and beginning in the 1950s they were gradually shut down.

However, in the 1970s, waste burning enjoyed another revival. These newer incinerators, many of which are still in operation, are called "resource recovery" or "waste-to-energy" plants. In addition to burning garbage, they produce heat or electricity that can be used in nearby buildings or residences, or sold to a utility. Many local governments became interested in waste-to-energy plants following the energy crisis in 1973. However, since the mid-1980s, it became difficult to find locations to build these facilities, mainly because of public opposition focused on air-quality issues.

Another problem with incineration is that it generates ash, which must be landfilled. Incinerators usually reduce the volume of garbage by 7090%. The remainder of the incinerated waste comes out as ash that often contains high concentrations of toxic substances.

Municipal solid waste will likely always be landfilled or burned to some extent. In the past 25 years, however, non-disposal methods such as waste prevention and recycling have become more common. Because of public concerns and the high costs of landfilling and burning (especially to build new facilities), local governments want to reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed in these ways.

Municipal solid waste is a relatively small part of the overall waste generated in the United States. More than 95% of the total 4.5 billion tons of solid waste generated in the United States each year is agricultural, mining, or industrial waste.

These wastes do not receive nearly as much attention as municipal solid waste, because most people do not have direct experience with them. Also, agricultural and mining wastes, which make up 88% of the overall total of solid waste, are largely handled at the places they are generated, that is, in the fields or at remote mining sites.

Mining nearly always generates substantial waste, whether the material being mined is coal , clay, sand , gravel, building stone, or metallic ore. Early mining concentrated on the richest lodes of minerals . Because modern methods of mining are more efficient, they can extract the desired minerals from veins that are less rich. However, much more waste is produced in the process.

Many of the plant and animal wastes generated by agriculture remain in the fields or rangelands. These wastes can be beneficial because they return organic matter and nutrients to the soil. However, modern techniques of raising large numbers of animals in small areas generate huge volumes of animal waste, or manure. Waste in such concentrated quantities must be managed carefully, or it can contaminate groundwater or surface water.

Industrial wastes that are not hazardous have traditionally been sent to landfills or incinerators. The rising cost of disposal has prompted many companies to seek alternative methods for handling these wastes, such as waste prevention and recycling. Often a manufacturing plant can reclaim certain waste materials by feeding them back into the production process.

Hazardous wastes are materials considered harmful or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Wastes may be deemed hazardous because they are poisonous, flammable, or corrosive, or because they react with other substances in a dangerous way.

Industrial operations have produced large quantities of hazardous waste for hundreds of years. Some hazardous wastes, such as mercury and dioxins, may be released as gases or vapors. Many hazardous industrial wastes are in liquid form. One of the greatest risks is that these wastes will contaminate water supplies.

An estimated 60% of all hazardous industrial waste in the United States is disposed using a method called deep-well injection. With this technique, liquid wastes are injected through a well into an impervious rock formation that keeps the waste isolated from groundwater and surface water. Other methods of underground burial are also used to dispose hazardous industrial waste and other types of dangerous material.

Pesticides used in farming may contaminate agricultural waste. Because of the enormous volumes of pesticides used in agriculture, the proper handling of unused pesticides is a daunting challenge for waste managers. Certain mining techniques also utilize toxic chemicals. Piles of mining and metal-processing waste, known as waste rock and tailings, may contain hazardous substances. Because of a reaction with the oxygen in the air, large amounts of toxic acids may form in waste rock and tailings and leach into surface waters.

Public attitudes also play a pivotal role in decisions about waste management. Virtually every proposed new landfill or waste-to-energy plant is opposed by people who live near the site. Public officials and planners refer to this reaction as NIMBY, which stands for "Not In My BackYard." If an opposition group becomes vocal or powerful enough, a city or county council is not likely to approve a proposed waste-disposal project. The public also wields considerable influence with businesses. Recycling and waste prevention initiatives enjoy strong public support. About 19% of United States municipal solid waste was recycled or composted in 1994, 10% was incinerated, and 71% was landfilled.

Preventing or reducing waste is typically the least expensive method for managing waste. Waste prevention may also reduce the amount of resources needed to manufacture or package a product. For example, most roll-on deodorants once came in a plastic bottle, which was inside a box. Beginning about 1992, deodorant manufacturers redesigned the bottle so that it would not tip-over easily on store shelves, which eliminated the need for the box as packaging. This is the type of waste prevention called source reduction. It can save businesses money, while also reducing waste.

Waste prevention includes many different practices that result in using fewer materials or products, or using materials that are less toxic. For example, a chain of clothing stores can ship its products to its stores in reusable garment bags, instead of disposable plastic bags. Manufacturers of household batteries can reduce the amount of mercury in their batteries. In an office, employees can copy documents on both sides of a sheet of paper, instead of just one side. A family can use cloth instead of paper napkins.

Composting grass clippings and tree leaves at home, rather than having them picked up for disposal or municipal composting, is another form of waste prevention. A resident can leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing (this is known as grass-cycling), or can compost leaves and grass in a backyard composting bin, or use them as a mulch in the garden.

When the current recycling boom began in the late 1980s, markets for the recyclables were not sufficiently considered. A result was that some recyclable materials were collected in large quantities but could not be sold, and some ended up going to landfills. Today, the development of recycling markets is a high priority. "Close the loop" is a catch-phrase in recycling education; it means that true recycling (i.e., the recycling loop) has not taken place until the new product is purchased and used.

To boost recycling markets, many local and state governments now require that their own agencies purchase and use products made from recycled materials. In a major step forward for recycling, President Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1993 requiring the federal government to use more recycled products.

Many managers of government recycling programs feel that manufacturers should take more responsibility for the disposal of their products and packaging, rather than letting municipalities bear the brunt of the disposal costs. An innovative and controversial law in Germany requires manufacturers to set up collection and recycling programs for disused packaging of their products.

The high cost of government-created recycling programs is often criticized. Supporters of recycling argue it is still less expensive than landfilling or incineration, when all costs are considered. Another concern about recycling is that the recycling process itself may generate hazardous wastes that must be treated and disposed.

Recycling of construction and demolition (C&D) debris is one of the growth areas for recycling. Although C&D debris is not normally considered a type of municipal solid waste, millions of tons of it have gone to municipal landfills over the years. If this material is separated at the construction or demolition site into separate piles of concrete, wood, and steel, it can usually be recycled.

Composting is considered either a form of recycling, or a close relative. Composting occurs when organic waste such as yard waste, food waste, and paperis broken down by microbial processes. The resulting material, known as compost, can be used by landscapers and gardeners to improve the fertility of their soil.

Yard waste, primarily grass clippings and tree leaves, makes up about one-fifth of the weight of municipal solid waste. Some states do not allow this waste to be disposed. These yard-waste bans have resulted in rapid growth for municipal composting programs. In these programs, yard waste is collected by trucks (separately from garbage and recyclables) and taken to a composting plant, where it is chopped up, heaped, and regularly turned until it becomes compost.

Waste from food-processing plants and produce trimmings from grocery stores are composted in some parts of the country. Residential food waste is the next frontier for composting. The city of Halifax, in Canada, collects food waste from households and composts it in large, central facilities.

Biological treatment, a technique for handling hazardous wastes, could be called a high-tech form of composting. Like composting, biological treatment employs microbes to break down wastes through a series of metabolic reactions. Many substances that are toxic, carcinogenic (cancer-causing), or undesirable in the environment for other reasons can be rendered harmless through this method.

Extensive research on biological treatment is in progress. Genetic engineering, a controversial branch of biology dealing with the modification of genetic codes, is closely linked with biological treatment, and could produce significant advances in this field.

Waste management became a particularly expensive proposition during the 1990s, especially for disposal. Consequently, waste managers constantly seek innovations that will improve efficiency and reduce costs. Several new ideas in land-filling involve the reclamation of useful resources from wastes.

For example, instead of just burning or releasing the methane gas that is generated within solid-waste landfills, some operators collect this gas, and then use it to produce power locally or sell it as fuel. At a few landfills, managers have experimented with a bold but relatively untested concept known as landfill mining. This involves digging up an existing landfill to recover recyclable materials, and sometimes to re-bury the garbage more efficiently. Landfill mining has been criticized as costly and impractical, but some operators believe it can save money under certain circumstances.

In the high-tech world of incineration, new designs and concepts are constantly being tried. One waste-to-energy technology for solid waste being introduced to the United States is called fluidized-bed incineration. About 40% of incinerators in Japan use this technology, which is designed to have lower emissions of some air pollutants than conventional incinerators.

A 1994 United States Supreme Court ruling could increase the cost of incineration significantly. The Court ruled that some ash produced by municipal solid-waste incinerators must be treated as a hazardous waste, because of high levels of toxic substances such as lead and cadmium. This means that incinerator ash now has to be tested, and part or all of the material may have to go to a hazardous waste landfill rather than a standard landfill.

A much smaller type of incinerator is used at many hospitals to burn medical wastes, such as blood, surgical waste, syringes, and laboratory waste. The safety of these medical waste incinerators has become a major issue in some communities. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency released in 1994 found that medical waste incinerators were leading sources of dioxin emissions into the air. The same study warned that dioxins, which can be formed by the burning of certain chemical compounds, pose a high risk of causing cancer and other health hazards in humans.

The greatest impetus for waste prevention will likely come from the public. More and more citizens will come to understand that pesticides, excessive packaging, and the use of disposable rather than durable items have important environmental costs. Through the growth of the information society, knowledge about these and other environmental issues will increase. This should result in a continuing evolution towards more efficient and environmentally sensitive waste management.

See also Atmospheric pollution; Greenhouse gases and greenhouse effect; Water pollution and biological purification

Waste Disposal

views updated May 23 2018

Waste Disposal


Garbage is a fact of life. Daily living generates waste that needs to be disposed. Some carbon-containing (organic) waste can be broken down in a process called composting to provide nutrients for the growth of food. Certain types of plastic and paper waste can be recycled, providing the material for the manufacture of other products (an example is the recycling of used tires to prepare a synthetic athletic turf that mimics the feel of grass).

Some waste, however, cannot be decomposed or recycled, and so must be disposed of unaltered. Typically, the waste is buried in landfills or is burned (incineration). These disposal routes have environmental consequences, as they occupy space and can lead to the production of noxious chemicals.

The gases created from decaying waste can influence climate. In past centuries, when Earth's population was much less, the climatic consequences of waste disposal were negligible. This is not the case in today's world, particularly with the growth of urban centers. London, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Delhi, Mumbai, New York, Los Angeles, Manila, Seoul, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro are some of a longer list of mega-cities whose populations exceed 10 million people. Mega-cities generate mega-trash; 12.1 million tons (11 million metric tons) each day in New York City alone.

With the planet's population and urban centers growing, the climatic consequences of waste will also continue to grow.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

Archaeological evidence shows that waste has been a part of human history dating back at least 13,000 years. Waste disposal is an ancient practice; excavation of a 12,000-year-old settlement in present-day Israel has revealed buildings dedicated to waste storage. In 500 BC, the city of Athens, Greece, developed the first known municipal

dump. The earliest known report of municipal incineration of waste dates from 1874, in Nottingham, England. By the first decade of the twentieth century, municipal trash collection was the norm in the United States; a survey of 161 U.S. cities conducted in 1902 found that almost 80% had a regular trash collection program.

The collected waste has to go somewhere. As cities grew in population during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the problem of waste disposal became serious. A commonly used method of disposal for coastal cities, the dumping of barge-loads of trash into the ocean, was banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1934. By the 1920s, U.S. wetlands were being converted to landfills, with layers of trash interspersed by ash and dirt.

More organized and sanitary landfills begin during World War II (1939–1945). Into the 1950s, many landfills were open pits in which trash was burned, a practice that was phased out by the 1960s when the dangers of gas emissions were recognized. In 1965, federal legislation was enacted to regulate the construction and operation of solid waste disposal facilities. Under this legislation, sanitary landfills must have physical barriers to prevent fluids from leaching into the surrounding ground.


ANAEROBIC: Lacking free molecular oxygen (O2). Anaerobic environments lack O2; anaerobic bacteria digest organic matter such as dead plants in anaerobic environments such as deep water and the digestive systems of cattle. Anaerobic digestion releases methane, a greenhouse gas.

COMPOSTING: The process by which organic waste, such as yard waste, food waste, and paper, is broken down by microorganisms and turned into a useful product for improving soil.

FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

LANDFILLS: Locations where garbage is dumped in pits and covered with soil. Anaerobic digestion by bacteria of organic matter in a landfill produces significant quantities of methane (a potent greenhouse gas), which must be vented lest it accumulate and possibly explode. In many countries (e.g., the United States), landfills are the single largest source of methane emissions. Vented methane's greenhouse impact can be reduced by about 95% by burning it, in some cases with the side-benefit of generating electricity. Burning methane produces carbon dioxide, a much less potent greenhouse gas by the ton.

TROPOSPHERE: The lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere, ranging to an altitude of about 9 mi (15 km) above Earth's surface.

WETLANDS: Areas that are wet or covered with water for at least part of the year.


“Post-consumer waste is a small contributor to global GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions (5%), but the waste sector can positively contribute to GHG mitigation at low cost and promote sustainable development (high agreement, much evidence).

  • Existing waste management practices can provide effective mitigation of GHG emissions from this sector: a wide range of mature, environmentally effective technologies are commercially available to mitigate emissions and provide co-benefits for improved public health and safety, soil protection and pollution prevention, and local energy supply
  • Waste minimization and recycling provide important indirect mitigation benefits through the conservation of energy and materials
  • Lack of local capital is a key constraint for waste and wastewater management in developing countries and countries with economies in transition. Lack of expertise on sustainable technology is also an important barrier.”

SOURCE: Metz, B., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: Mitigation of Climate Change: Contribution of Working Group III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

World War II also spurred public participation in recycling of materials including rubber, scrap metal, foodstuff, and tin cans. At the height of the war, an estimated 25% of U.S. waste was being recycled. Such measures help reduce the impact of waste on surrounding land and water. However, the burden to Earth's climate has been more problematic.

One source of the link between waste disposal and climate lies deep within the landfill. In the oxygen-poor or oxygen-free atmosphere within a landfill, the decomposition of material generates a gas called methane (CH4). Although some landfills recover the methane, most methane is vented off to the atmosphere. This has been shown to contribute to global warming. Methane is one of the so-called greenhouse gases—about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). Such greenhouse gases increase heat retention in the region of the atmosphere known as the troposphere. Similar to a greenhouse, the result is the warming of the air above Earth's surface.

Burning of waste also contributes carbon dioxide and another greenhouse gas called nitrous oxide (N2O). In Canada, for example, almost 1% of the country's carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions come from waste incineration. In other developed countries, this figure can be as high as 8%. Nitrous oxide is an especially potent greenhouse gas, but only makes up only a small portion of the total emissions from incineration.

Impacts and Issues

Waste disposal is a significant source of greenhouse gases. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), greenhouse-gas emissions from waste in North America and the European Community in 2002 exceeded 330 million tons (300 million metric tons). In Canada, landfills generate an estimated 1.3 million tons (1.2 million metric tons) of greenhouse gases each year— the equivalent of the emissions from 6 million cars, 40% of all the passenger vehicles in the country. In 2006, the greenhouse-gas emissions from landfills in the United States were 147 million metric tons.

Under a 2003 provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the disposal of wastes that contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions has become a cross-border option for the United States and Canada. The city of Toronto, Ontario currently trucks more than 10,000 tons of garbage each day to landfills in Michigan. In return, Michigan is allowed to export hazardous waste (including radioactive waste) to Ontario.

Public opposition of local residents on both sides of the border has been vigorous.

The production of greenhouse gases associated with waste disposal can be reduced by composting, or the breakdown of organic material by microorganisms. In a pile of composting material, some anaerobic decomposition occurs, generating carbon dioxide, but most of the gas is retained in the pile. Other decomposition takes place in the presence of oxygen, and carbon dioxide is not produced. Composting also has the advantage of supplying an end product that is a nutrient for the growth of food.

Landfill design is having an even more profound effect. In the developed world, modern landfills that incinerate gases or collect the gas to be used as fuel or to generate electricity prevent carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions. These sorts of technology advances are reducing dependence on fossil fuels. For example, the methane produced by landfills in Canada is sufficient to heat 600,000 homes a year.

See Also Greenhouse Gases; Methane;Wastewater Treatment.



Cowans, Jonathan. Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Williams, Paul T. Waste Treatment and Disposal. New York: Wiley, 2005.

Web Sites

“Waste Management and Climate Change.” Environment Canada, February 20, 2003. <http://www.ec.gc.ca/EnviroZine/english/issues/29/feature1_e.cfm> (accessed November 5, 2007).

Brian D. Hoyle

Waste Management

views updated Jun 11 2018

Waste management

Waste management is the handling of discarded materials. The term most commonly applies to the disposition of solid wastes, which is often described as solid waste management. One form of waste management involves the elimination of undesirable waste products by methods such as landfilling and incineration. But recycling and composting, which transform waste into useful products, also are forms of waste management.

The term waste can apply to a wide variety of materials, including discarded food, leaves, newspapers, bottles, construction debris, chemicals from a factory, candy wrappers, disposable diapers, and radioactive materials. Civilization has always produced waste. But as industry and technology have evolved and the world's population has grown, waste management has become an increasingly difficult and complex problem.

A primary objective of waste management today is to protect the public and the environment from potential harmful effects of waste. Some waste materials are normally safe but can be hazardous if not managed properly. One gallon (3.75 liters) of used motor oil, for example, can contaminate one million gallons (3,750,000 liters) of water.

Who manages waste? Every individual, business, and industry must make decisions and take some responsibility regarding its own waste. On a larger scale, government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels enact and enforce waste management regulations. These agencies also educate the public about proper waste management. In addition, local government agencies may provide disposal or recycling services themselves, or they may hire private companies to perform those functions.

Forms of waste

Most solid wastes can be subdivided into one of three major categories: municipal solid wastes; agricultural, mining, and industrial wastes; and hazardous wastes. Municipal solid waste is what most people think of as garbage, refuse, or trash. It is generated by households, businesses (other than heavy industry), and institutions such as schools and hospitals.

Words to Know

Biosolids: Another name for sewage sludge.

Cremators: Primitive devices for incinerating municipal wastes.

Dump (or open dump): An area in which wastes are simply deposited and left to rot or decay.

Hazardous wastes: Wastes that are poisonous, flammable, or corrosive, or that react with other substances in a dangerous way.

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

Landfilling: A land disposal method for solid waste in which garbage is covered every day with several inches of soil.

Leachate: The liquid that filters through a dump or landfill.

Recycling: The use of waste materials, also known as secondary materials or recyclables, to produce new products.

Resource recovery plant: An incinerator that uses energy produced by the burning of solid wastes for some useful purpose.

Source reduction: Reduction in the quantity or the toxicity of material used for a product or packaging; a form of waste prevention.

Tailings: Piles of mine wastes.

Waste prevention: A waste management method that involves preventing waste from being created, or reducing waste.

Waste-to-energy plant: An incinerator that uses energy produced by the burning of solid wastes for some useful purpose.

Although we may be very conscious of municipal wastes, they actually represent only a small fraction of all solid wastes produced annually. Indeed, more than 95 percent of the 4.5 billion tons of solid waste generated in the United States each year come from agriculture, mining, and industry. These forms of solid waste are less visible to the ordinary person because they are usually generated at remote mining sites or in the fields.

Mining nearly always generates substantial waste, whether the material being mined is coal, clay, sand, gravel, building stone, or metallic ore. Early mining techniques concentrated on the removal of ores with the highest concentration of the desired mineral. Because modern methods of mining are more efficient, they can extract the desired minerals from veins that are less rich. However, much more waste is produced in the process.

Many of the plant and animal wastes generated by agriculture remain in the fields or rangelands. These wastes can be beneficial because they return nutrients to the soil. But modern techniques of raising large numbers of animals in small areas generate great volumes of animal waste, or manure. Waste in such quantities must be managed carefully, or it can contaminate groundwater or surface water.

Hazardous waste

Hazardous wastes are materials considered harmful or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. Wastes may be deemed hazardous because they are poisonous, flammable, or corrosive, or because they react with other substances in a dangerous way.

Industrial operations have produced large quantities of hazardous waste for hundreds of years. Some hazardous wastes, such as mercury and dioxins, may be released as gases. Many hazardous industrial wastes are in liquid form. One of the greatest risks is that these wastes will contaminate water supplies.

Pesticides used in farming may contaminate agricultural waste. Because of the enormous volumes of pesticides used in agriculture, the proper handling of unused or waste pesticides is a daunting challenge for modern waste management. Certain mining techniques also utilize toxic chemicals. Piles of mining waste, known as tailings, may contain hazardous

substances. When these substances react with the oxygen in the air, toxic acids may form and may be washed into the groundwater by rain.

Hazardous wastes come from the home as well. Many common household products contain toxic chemicals. Examples include drain cleaner, pesticides, glue, paint, paint thinner, air freshener, and nail polish. Twenty years ago, most people dumped these products in the garbage, even if the containers were not empty. But local governments do not want them in the garbage. They also do not want residents to pour leftover household chemicals down the drain, since municipal sewage treatment plants are not well-equipped to remove them.

Management of wastes

Throughout history, four basic methods for managing wastes have been used: dumping; incineration (burning); recycling; and waste prevention. How these four methods are utilized depends on the kind of wastes being managed. Municipal solid waste is much different than industrial, agricultural, or mining waste. And hazardous waste poses such serious problems that it needs to be handled by specialized techniques, even when it is generated with other types of wastes.

Landfills. Early humans did not worry much about waste management. They simply left their garbage where it dropped. But as permanent communities developed, people began to place their waste in designated dumping areas. The use of such open dumps for garbage is still common in some parts of the world.

But open dumps have major disadvantages, especially in heavily populated areas. Toxic chemicals can filter down through a dump and contaminate groundwater. (The liquid that filters through a dump or land-filljust as water percolates or filters through coffee grounds to make coffeeis called leachate.) Dumps also may generate methane, an explosive gas produced when organic wastes decompose under certain conditions.

In many parts of the world today, open dumps have been replaced by landfills, also known as sanitary landfills. The sanitary landfill was apparently invented in England in the 1920s. At a landfill, garbage is covered at the end of every day with several inches of soil. Landfilling became common in the United States in the 1940s. By the late 1950s, it was the dominant solid waste disposal method in the nation.

Early landfills had significant leachate and methane problems. But those have largely been resolved at landfills built in the past 20 years. Today's landfills are lined with several feet of clay and with thick plastic sheets. Leachate is collected at the bottom, drained through pipes, and processed. Methane gas also is safely piped out of the landfill.

The dumping of waste does not take place on land only. Ocean dumping makes use of barges that carry garbage out to sea. This technique was once used as a disposal method by some U.S. coastal cities and is still practiced by some nations. Sewage sludge, or processed sewage, was dumped at sea in huge quantities by New York City until 1992, when it was finally prohibited. Also called biosolids, sewage sludge is not generally considered solid waste but is sometimes composted with organic municipal solid waste.

Incineration. Incineration has a long history in municipal solid waste management. Some American cities began to burn their garbage in the late nineteenth century in devices called cremators. These devices were not very efficient, however, and cities eventually went back to dumping or other methods. In the 1930s and 1940s, many cities built new types of garbage burners known as incinerators. Many incinerators have now been shut down, primarily because of the air pollution they create.

Waste burning enjoyed yet another revival in the 1970s and 1980s. The new incinerators, many of which are still in operation, are called resource recovery or waste-to-energy plants. In addition to burning garbage, they produce heat or electricity that is used in nearby buildings or residences or sold to a utility. Many local governments became interested in waste-to-energy plants following the U.S. energy crisis in 1973. But, by the mid-1980s, it had become difficult to find locations to build these facilities, once again mainly because of air quality issues.

Another problem with incineration is that it generates ash, which must be landfilled. Incinerators usually reduce the volume of garbage by 70 to 90 percent. The rest comes out as ash that often contains high concentrations of toxic substances.

Recycling and waste prevention. Municipal solid waste will probably always be landfilled or burned to some extent. Since the mid-1970s, however, nondisposal methods such as waste prevention and recycling have become more popular. Because of public concerns and the high costs of landfilling and incineration, local governments want to reduce the amount of waste that needs to be disposed.

Even the earliest civilizations recycled some items before they became garbage. Broken pottery was often ground up and used to make new pottery, for example. Recycling has taken many forms. One unusual type of recycling, called reduction, was common in large U.S. cities from about 1900 to 1930. In reduction plants, wet garbage, dead horses, and other dead animals were cooked in large vats to produce grease and fertilizer. A more familiar, and certainly more appealing, type of recycling took place during World War II (193945), when scrap metal was collected to help the war effort. Modern-day recycling has had two recent booms, from about 1969 to 1974 and another that began in the late 1980s. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the recycling rate in the United States had risen to 28 percent, an increase of more than 10 percent from a decade before.

Reuse and repair are the earliest forms of waste prevention, which also is known as waste reduction. When tools, clothes, and other necessities were scarce, people naturally repaired them again and again. When they were beyond repair, people found other uses for them.

One form of waste prevention, called source reduction, is a reduction in the quantity or the toxicity of the material used for a product or packaging.

Industrial waste management

Industrial wastes that are not hazardous have traditionally been sent to landfills or incinerators. The rising cost of disposal has prompted many companies to seek alternative methods for handling these wastes. Often, a manufacturing plant can reclaim certain waste materials by feeding them back into the production process.

An estimated 60 percent of all hazardous industrial waste in the United States is disposed of with a method called deep well injection. With this technique, liquid wastes are injected into a well located in a type of rock formation that keeps the waste isolated from groundwater and surface water. Other underground burial methods are also used for hazardous industrial waste and other types of dangerous waste.

Hazardous wastes are disposed of at specially designed landfills and incinerators. A controversial issue in international relations is the export of hazardous waste, usually from industrial countries to developing nations. This export often takes place with the stated intent of recycling, but some of the wastes end up being dumped.

[See also Composting; Pollution; Recycling ]

Waste Disposal

views updated May 23 2018


WASTE DISPOSAL. Societies have always had to deal with waste disposal, but what those societies have defined as waste, as well as where would be that waste's ultimate destination, has varied greatly over time. Largescale waste disposal is primarily an urban issue because of the waste disposal needs of population concentrations and the material processing and production-type activities that go on in cities. Waste is often defined as "matter out of place" and can be understood as part of a city's metabolic processes. Cities require materials to sustain their life processes and need to remove wastes resulting from consumption and processing to prevent "nuisance and hazard." Well into the nineteenth century, many American cities lacked garbage and rubbish collection services. Cities often depended on animals such as pigs, goats, and cows, or even buzzards in southern cities, to consume slops and garbage tossed into the streets by residents. In the middle of the century, health concerns stimulated such larger cities as New York to experiment with collection, often by contracting out. Contractors and municipalities often discarded wastes into near by waterways or placed them on vacant lots on the city fringe.

Rapid urbanization in the late nineteenth century increased the volume of wastes and aroused concern over nuisances and hazards. People had always viewed garbage as a nuisance, but the public-health movement, accompanied by widespread acceptance of anticontagionist theory, emphasized the rapid disposal of organic wastes to prevent epidemics. Concern about potential disease drove municipalities to consider collection, usually by setting up their own services, granting contracts, or allowing householders to make private arrangements. By the late nineteenth century, cities were relying on contractors, although there were shifts between approaches. Cities apparently preferred contracting to municipal operation because of cost as well as the absence of a rationale for government involvement in a domain with many private operators.

During the first half of the twentieth century, municipal control over collection gradually increased to between 60 and 70 percent, largely for health and efficiency reasons. Just as they had moved from private to public provision of water because of concerns over inability of the private sector to protect against fire and illness, cities began to question leaving waste removal to contractors. Contractor collection was often disorganized, with frequent vendor changes, short-term contracts, and contractor reluctance to invest in equipment. Municipal reformers concluded that sanitation was too important to be left to profit-motivated contractors. Initially, responsibility went to departments of public health, but as the germ theory of disease replaced anticontagionism, control over the function shifted to public works departments. Increasingly, cities viewed garbage collection as an engineering rather than a public health problem, and municipal concern shifted from health to fire hazards and the prevention of nuisances such as odors and flies.

Changes in both composition of wastes (or solid wastes, as they were now called) and collection and disposal methods occurred after World War II. A major fraction of municipal solid wastes before the war had been ashes, but as heating oil and natural gas displaced coal, ashes became less important. The solid wastes generated by individuals did not decrease, however, because there were sharp rises in the amount of nonfood materials, such as packaging and glass. Another change occurred in regard to disposal sites. Before the war, cities had disposed of wastes in dumps, on pig farms (a form of recycling), by ocean dumping, or by incineration. A few cities used garbage reduction or composting. For nuisance and health reasons, cities found these methods unacceptable, and in the decades after 1945, they adopted the so-called sanitary landfill method of waste disposal, which involved the systematic placing of wastes in the ground using a technology such as a bulldozer or a bull clam shovel. The sanitary landfill, or tipping, had been widely used in Great Britain before the war. In the late 1930s, Jean Vincenz, director of public works in Fresno, California, had developed it. Vincenz used the sanitary landfill to deal with solid wastes at army camps during the war. Public works and public health professionals and municipal engineers viewed the technique as a final solution to the waste disposal problem. Between 1945 and 1960, the number of fills increased from 100 to 1,400.

A further development, starting in the late 1950s, involved a rise in private contracting. Firms that provided economies of scale, sophisticated management, and efficient collection absorbed smaller companies and replaced municipal operations. Sharp rises in the costs of disposal as well as a desire to shift labor and operating costs to the private sector also played a role. In the 1980s, private contracting grew rapidly because it was the most cost effective method available.

In the 1960s, the environmental movement raised questions about solid-waste disposal and the safety of sanitary landfills, both in terms of the environment and health. In the 1950s, states had strengthened environmental regulations, while the federal government followed with the Solid Waste Act in 1965 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976. Higher standards for landfills raised costs. Increasingly, society sought disposal methods such as recycling that appeared protective of health and environmentally benign. By the last decade of the twentieth century, as new techniques for utilizing recycled materials and controlling waste generation developed, society seemed on its way to a more sustainable balance.

The tendency of Americans to consume everincreasing amounts of goods, however, has dampened the rate of improvement. For instance, Americans are discarding an increasing number of computers every year. Monitors especially consistitute an environmental danger because they contain lead, mercury, and cadmium. If disposed of in landfills, they may leach these dangerous metals into the soil and groundwater. Therefore, concerned consumers are pushing manufacturers to create collection and recycling programs for outdated equipment.

Nevertheless, recycling programs have not proven the anticipated panacea for problems in solid-waste disposal. Quite simply, the supply of recyclable materials generally outstrips demand. A strong market exists for aluminum cans, but newspaper, plastic, and glass remain less attractive to buyers. For example, removing the ink from newspapers is expensive, and the wood fibers in paper do not stand up well to repeated processing. Thus, just because it is theoretically possible to recycle a material, it does not mean that recycling actually will happen. This difficulty suggests that consumers hoping to limit the amount of material in landfills would do well to buy products with less initial packaging and of materials that recycle easily.


Luton, Larry S. The Politics of Garbage: A Community Perspective on Solid Waste Policy Making. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996.

Melosi, Martin V. The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America from Colonial Times to the Present. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

———. Effluent America: Cities, Industry, Energy, and the Environment. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2001.

Whitaker, Jennifer Seymour. Salvaging the Land of Plenty: Garbage and the American Dream. New York: W. Morrow, 1994.

Joel A.Tarr/a. e.

See alsoEnvironmental Business ; Environmental Movement ; Environmental Protection Agency ; Food, Fast ; Hazardous Waste ; Plastics ; Printing Industry ; Recycling ; Water Pollution .