views updated May 29 2018


Advanced industrial societies produce enormous quantities of waste. People know it when they see it, yet waste does not admit of any strictly physical definition. Moreover what is at one point waste can at another point easily be resource. Examples include archaeological digs in archaic trash dumps, artistic creations of objets trouvés co-generation plants, and recycling centers.

However waste is defined and measured, it is safe to say that never before have humans produced and thrown away as much as they do in the early twenty-first century. Mass production through industrialization, extensive packaging (to facilitate both shipping and sales), and rapid obsolescence (whether planned or as an accidental effect of technological progress) in a free market economy, driving the compulsion to make things and consume them, have formed a world in which artifacts are produced, consumed, and discarded to an historically unprecedented extent.

Indeed there is a tendency for the lifetime of durable products to be shortened to that of consumables, and for non-renewable natural resource stocks to be consumed in the same way as renewable production flows, which some critics ascribe to the inability of free market forces to distinguish between them. Given the size of the phenomenon and its potential damaging effects on public health, the environment, and future generations, waste is one of the fundamental problems facing the technoscientific and consumer society.


The rapid growth, diversification, and toxicity of waste production have been accompanied, though not matched, by legislation, the development of regulatory institutions, and new methods of treatment and control. Waste has become a priority of environmental risk politics for national and international authorities (for example, the European Union [EU], U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development [OECD], World Health Organization [WHO], United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP], and so on), and one of the crucial concerns of social and ecological movements (such as Greenpeace).

The roots of this politicization go back to the nineteenth century and the earliest public health reforms spearheaded by medical scientists and advocates of public hygiene (Melosi 1981). This process is related to growing feelings of repugnance and the formalizing of new rules of conduct, discipline and self-control. Waste, which was increasing as the population of urban areas grew, was synonymous with chaos, disorder, and contagion, and had to be put out of sight. The concept of matter out of place, used by Mary Douglas (1966) in an anthropological study of dirt and pollution, offers a vision of waste as something that intrudes on ordered arrangements where everything has its rightful place.

Another impulse for the politicization of waste came in the 1970s with the emergence of ecological movements and environmental ethics. Rachel Carson's pioneering book, Silent Spring (1962), was a decisive influence in these developments. In it she denounced the harmful effects on human and animal health of the massive application of DDT and other chemical pesticides in agriculture. Consciousness of ecological frailty and feelings of ambiguity in relation to the unexpected consequences of technological advances were later reinforced by environmental accidents in the fields of technology and energy (for example, Times Beach and Love Canal in the United States, and the Seveso dioxin-contaminated waste drums in Europe).

Waste Policy

Waste policy is formed as part of a wider strategy, either to decrease pollution and protect the environment, or to bring about technological and industrial change and innovation. In each of these aims, there is remarkable ambivalence regarding the technological implications.

On the one hand, technology itself is responsible for much waste production and global pollution. Each technical development, despite its many benefits, has brought an increase in the amounts and types of waste. After the non-degradable waste produced by the steel and iron industries of the early industrial era, plastic, chemical, and pharmaceutical products have given rise to even more waste products that are more toxic and difficult to treat, control, and dispose of. On the other hand, technology is also absolutely necessary for waste prevention and the disposal of pollutants. All the principles of current international waste management strategy—minimization, recycling, reuse, and improving final disposal and monitoring—depend, in general, on techno-scientific solutions. For example, the ability to recycle is built into some products at the design stage; and some technological innovations are created specifically to improve the treatment or recovery of waste.

So-called ecological or green strategies are made difficult by the many sources of waste—domestic, commercial, industrial, medical, agricultural, construction, and so on—and its physical and chemical nature, comprising (among other materials) metals, plastics, glass, paper, and vegetable matter, often in complex and hard-to-separate combinations as in batteries, cartons, and cars. When waste cannot be recycled or reused, it is usually burnt ("incinerated") at high temperatures or dumped into landfill sites. However each of these methods may cause air, water, and soil pollution, and may have harmful effects on human, plant, and animal health.

Hazardous and Radioactive Waste

Hazardous waste, and especially radioactive waste, requires extra care in its treatment and disposal. Because of their potential harmful effects—and the political, social, and ethical questions they raise—hazardous and radioactive wastes are generally the most studied. Most international policies and treaties deal with waste of these types, whose environmental problems are global in scope and indifferent to national, generational, or class boundaries. Yet despite similarities, entirely separate legislation governs the two types, and they have different regulatory institutions and interest groups.

The contents of hazardous wastes may cause serious damage to human health and/or the environment, when improperly treated, stored, transported or disposed of. There are differing definitions and systems of classification in different countries and even between states and regions of the same country. It is symptomatic that there is little agreement on the definition of hazardous, on who is responsible for this definition, and on what substances are considered as hazardous waste.

According to Brian Wynne (1987), a sociologist who has addressed environmental issues and in particular the problem of waste, the lack of consensus between countries over hazardous waste is the main difficulty for international regulation. Furthermore this type of waste is usually taken to be not dispersed and diluted in the environment, but packaged for further treatment before eventual destruction, containment, and/or dispersal, and is thus more liable to have concentrated and harmful effects. In their life cycles these wastes not only change in physical and chemical terms, but also pass through the control of various human agents. A complex behavioral-technical system therefore underpins hazardous waste, bringing together natural processes and human interaction in an unpredictable and imprecise way. This happens all over an industrial network, whose entire infrastructure—for collection, transport, storage, treatment, and disposal of waste—requires extensive regulation.

In general this type of waste is identified in three ways: (a) by reason of certain properties, detected by test procedures such as flammability (may cause or prolong fire), corrosiveness (may destroy live tissue that comes into contact with it), toxicity (inhaling, swallowing or penetration through the skin may involve serious risk or even death), etc.; (b) by the presence of toxic chemical elements or abnormal concentrations of these, also detectable by tests; and (c) by listings of specific categories of waste identified as being hazardous and for which no tests are necessary. Radioactive waste contains substances which emit ionizing radiation. Proper management and safe and environmentally sustainable storage are vital but complex tasks. Nuclear waste, depending on the source, its levels of radioactivity, longevity and hazard, may be classified in two broad categories: "high-level" (from the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel) and "low-level" (generally in the form of radioactively contaminated industrial or research waste). Other categories are transuranic radioactive waste and uranium mill tailings. One may identify two key problems with this classification: first, "low-level" waste contains some elements that are more radioactive than some of those contained in "high-level" waste; second, the public tends to perceive all radioactive waste as being "high-level."

Regardless of whether the risks are great or small, citizens typically fear toxic products and their carcinogenic effects in general, and nuclear radiation in particular. Despite accusations of irrational "chemophobia," the concerns of ordinary people are based on the impact of accidents such as those at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Bhopal. In addition to these accidents, and compounding the potential threat of chemical products, each year several hundred synthetic chemical products are brought to market without being subjected to any prior tests. This underlies the phenomenon of "bioaccumulation," whereby all substances that are resistant to degradation, whether tested or not, gradually build up in successive stages of the food chain.

Ethical Issues

The regulation of waste raises four key ethical and political issues. The first derives from the need for integrated waste management involving a range of actors on different levels. In addition to international responsibility—which is necessary, for example, to control exports of waste and to avoid illegal dumping in the oceans—the following are also key elements:

  • the model of economic development, for example one in which recycling and waste reduction activities are encouraged, leading to the idea of sustainable development;
  • scientific research that can salvage traditional technologies that are less harmful to the environment, invent alternative technologies, and develop products with an ecologically friendly design;
  • attitudes and incentives in business, where new designs and technologies can be used to minimize the environmental impact of a product;
  • the civic consciousness of citizens, who may demand environmentally friendlier ("greener") products, less packaging, and access to reliable information through, for example, labeling (such as the "eco-label" – a flower logo in Europe).

A second issue concerns the ethical dilemmas raised by the risks associated with waste technologies. Given the rational impossibility of a zero-risk society, the debate about the threshold of acceptable risk and how it ought to be distributed generally swings between utilitarian and egalitarian ethical perspectives. Problems arise because no standard threshold provides all citizens with equal protection from harm. Moreover that threshold, which is an average annual probability of fatality linked to some hazard, may not protect the basic rights of all individuals with their specific characteristics and needs.

For Kristin Shrader-Frechette (1991), a leading investigator of the ethical dilemmas associated with nuclear waste, it is essential to obtain the free and informed consent of those who are exposed or put at risk. Those who impose societal risks on others should compensate them in order to obtain their consent. Informed and freely-given consent and compensation are guidelines which are appropriate for avoiding popular hostility. This arises frequently in discussions on where to site waste treatment facilities, reflecting syndromes known as NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard), NIABY (not-in-anybody's-backyard), or LULU (locally-undesirable-land-use).

A third issue is the link to the methodology used in technological assessment and analysis of environmental impact. A socially acceptable study of these problems cannot be reduced to simple cost-benefit analysis based on calculations of mathematical probabilities while ignoring moral values such as equality, equity, social justice, and common well-being.

Apart from examining the magnitude, risks, and benefits, any assessment should also weigh the moral acceptability of technology, because the issues involved cannot be reduced to factual terms. To fail to recognize this is to commit a version of the naturalistic fallacy (Moore 1903) by deducing and justifying ethical conclusions from technical considerations (Shrader-Frechette 1980). This error is even more serious when found in studies used to support policy decisions relating to matters of public interest.

A final ethical consideration is that a significant number of waste-related activities, from collection to recycling, are very profitable. Indeed wastes are a vital part of the capitalist economy: consumerism and an active throwaway mentality encourage constant production and fuel ever-expanding human needs.

However the fact that an entirely new industry has developed, on a for-profit basis, to deal with the waste problem, gives rise to a conflict between public and private interests. The involvement of private groups in matters of public interest may create conflict, even though a strong public sector can encounter problems with excessive bureaucracy and consequent distortions. To avoid exacerbating such conflicts, citizens are often given access to full information on each case and/or committees of experts are appointed to give scientific opinions on the regulation of waste management.

Modern society strives for a balance between economic development and environmental protection, finding a threshold that reconciles the inevitable production of waste with a commitment to ecological sustainability. The depletion of natural resources that may not be renewable, and the (often related) by-production of hazardous waste, is an increasingly important focus of long-running debates regarding conflict between state regulation and market forces, between individual action and collective consequences, and between the practical and the ethical impact of new or newly mass-consumed technologies.


SEE ALSO Carson, Rachel;Consumerism;Ecology;Environmental Ethics;Environmental Impact Assessment;Environmental Regulatory Agencies;Hazards;Nuclear Waste;Pollution; Risk;Sustainability and Sustainable Development;United Nations Environmental Program.


Carson, Rachel. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Douglas, Mary. (1966). Purity and Danger. London: Routledge & K. Paul.

Dowling, Michael, and Joanne Linnerooth. (1987). "The Listing and Classifying of Hazardous Waste." In Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and the Dialectics of Credibility, ed. Brian Wynne. Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag.

Melosi, Martin V. (1981). Garbage in the Cities: Refuse, Reform, and the Environment, 1880–1980. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.

Moore, George Edward. (1903). Principia Ethica. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin. (1980). Nuclear Power and the Public Policy: The Social and Ethical Problems of Fission Technology. Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Company.

Shrader-Frechette, Kristin S. (1991). Risk and Rationality: Philosophical Foundations for Populist Reforms. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Strasser, Susan. (1999). Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Wynne, Brian, ed. (1987). Risk Management and Hazardous Waste: Implementation and the Dialectics of Credibility. Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag.


views updated Jun 11 2018


Waste has been defined as a moveable object with no direct use that is discarded permanently. There are many different kinds of waste, including solid, liquid, gaseous, hazardous, radioactive, and medical. Wastes can also be defined by generator, for example, municipal, commercial, industrial, or agricultural.

Waste Types

A solid waste does not flow like water or gas. Examples include paper, wood, metals, glass, plastic, and contaminated soil. Solid wastes can be hazardous or nonhazardous. Problems associated with nonhazardous solid waste include aesthetic problems (litter and odors), leachate from the infiltration of water through the waste, and off-gases resulting from biodegradation. Nonhazardous solid wastes are commonly handled by recycling, combustion, land-filling, and composting.

Liquid wastes must be transported in containers or through pipes. Examples include sewage, contaminated groundwater, and industrial liquid discharges. In some cases, direct discharge to the environment may be allowed. However, depending on the waste's characteristics, direct discharge may cause unacceptable environmental harm. For example, large amounts of sewage discharged into a stream can result in fish kills. Liquid wastes containing excreta can contain pathogenic organisms. Other liquid wastes may be toxic. Liquid wastes are often handled at wastewater treatment plants, followed by discharge to the environment.

Sludges contain various ratios of liquid and solid material. They generally result from liquid waste-treatment operations, such as sedimentation tanks. Depending on the percent of solids, sludge may have the characteristics of a liquid or solid. Biological sludge can contain pathogenic organisms. Some sludges contain heavy metals or other toxins. Sludges are commonly handled with treatment, combustion, landfilling, and land application.

Gaseous wastes, of course, consist of gases. They are primarily generated by combustion (e.g., internal combustion engines, incinerators, coal-fired electrical generating plants) and industrial processes. Depending on their characteristics, gaseous wastes can be odiferous or toxic. Some are implicated in global warming, ozone depletion, and smog. Gaseous wastes may be released to the atmosphere or captured/treated with pollution control equipment.

Hazardous wastes pose a substantial present or potential danger to human health or the environment. They can be solid, sludge, liquid, or gas. Hazardous wastes have at least one of the following characteristics: corrosivity, ignitability, reactivity, and toxicity. Hazardous wastes are commonly handled by recycling, combustion, stabilization, chemical-physical-biological treatment, and landfilling.

Radioactive wastes emit particles or electromagnetic radiation (e.g., alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and x rays). Radioactive wastes can be high level, transuranic, or low level. High-level radioactive wastes are from spent or reprocessed nuclear reactor fuel. Transuranic wastes are from isotopes above uranium in the periodic table. They are generally low in radioactivity, but have long half-lives . Low-level wastes have little radioactivity and can often be handled with little or no shielding. Radiation can damage living cells and cause cancer. Although recycling and incineration may reduce waste amounts, the primary method for handling radioactive wastes is long-term storage.

Medical wastes, that is, wastes generated at medical facilities, can be infectious, toxic, and/or radioactive. Though they may have hazardous characteristics, they are not regulated as hazardous wastes. Some medical wastes are sterilized, disinfected, or incinerated, especially infectious wastes. Recycling and landfilling are also used to dispose of them.

Waste Amounts

The amount of waste generated by a given household is directly related to lifestyle, culture, and economic status. Climate can also increase generation rates (e.g., yard waste). General differences are great enough to produce different country-wide generation rates. The United States has the highest rate, 2.0 kilograms per person per dayprobably the result of high economic status, a culture of consumption, and a lifestyle that includes large amounts of disposable items. However, the United States also has a relatively high recycling rate, 27.8 percent in 1999. Some European countries have generation rates varying from 0.9 to 1.7 kilograms per person per day. Developing regions tend to have still lower rates, ranging from 0.3 to 1.

see also Air Pollution; Hazardous Waste; Lifestyle; Medical Waste; Ozone; Radioactive Waste; Solid Waste; Waste to Energy; Waste, Transportation of; Wastewater Treatment.


davis, m., and cornwell, d. (1998). introduction to environmental engineering, 3rd edition. new york: wcb mcgraw-hill.

reinhardt, p., and gordon, j. (1991). infectious and medical waste management. chelsea, mn: lewis publishers.

siegel, m. (1993). "garbage and other pollutionhow do we live with all the trash?" information plus. detroit, mi: gale.

tchobanoglous, g.; theisen, h.; and vigil, s. (1993). integrated solid waste management. new york: mcgraw-hill.

Jess Everett


views updated May 21 2018

waste / wāst/ • v. 1. [tr.] use or expend carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose: we can't afford to waste electricity I don't use the car, so why should I waste precious money on it? ∎  (usu. be wasted on) bestow or expend on an unappreciative recipient: her small talk was wasted on this guest. ∎  (usu. be wasted) fail to make full or good use of: we're wasted in this job.2. [intr.] (of a person or a part of the body) become progressively weaker and more emaciated: she was dying of AIDS, visibly wasting away| [as adj.] (wasting) a wasting disease. ∎  [tr.] archaic cause to do this: these symptoms wasted the patients very much.3. [tr.] poetic/lit. devastate or ruin (a place): he seized their cattle and wasted their country. ∎ inf. kill or severely injure (someone): I saw them waste the guy I worked for.4. [intr.] poetic/lit. (of time) pass away; be spent: the years were wasting.• adj. 1. (of a material, substance, or byproduct) eliminated or discarded as no longer useful or required after the completion of a process: ensure that waste materials are disposed of responsibly | plants produce oxygen as a waste product.2. (of an area of land, typically in a city or town) not used, cultivated, or built on: a patch of waste ground.• n. 1. an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose: it's a waste of time trying to argue with him | they had learned to avoid waste. ∎ archaic the gradual loss or diminution of something: he was pale and weak from waste of blood.2. material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or byproducts of something: bodily waste | (wastes) hazardous industrial wastes. 3. (usu. wastes) a large area of barren, typically uninhabited land: the icy wastes of the Antarctic.4. Law damage to an estate caused by an act or by neglect, esp. by a life-tenant.PHRASES: go to waste be unused or expended to no purpose.lay waste to (or lay something (to) waste) completely destroy: a land laid waste by war.waste one's breathsee breath.waste wordssee word.


views updated May 18 2018


Harmful or destructive use of real property by one in rightful possession of the property.

Waste is an unreasonable or improper use of land by an individual in rightful possession of the land. A party with an interest in a parcel of land may file a civil action based on waste committed by an individual who also has an interest in the land. Such disputes may arise between life tenants and remainderpersons and landlords and tenants. The lawsuit may seek an injunction to stop the waste, damages for the waste, or both. Actions based on waste ordinarily arise when an owner of land takes exception to the manner in which the possessor or tenant is using the land.

The four common types of waste are voluntary, permissive, ameliorating, and equitable waste. Voluntary waste is the willful destruction or carrying away of something attached to the property. In an action for voluntary waste, the plaintiff must show that the waste was caused by an affirmative act of the tenant. Such waste might occur if a life tenant (a person who possesses the land for his lifetime, after which a remainderperson takes possession) chops down all the trees on the occupied land and sells them as lumber.

Voluntary waste will also occur, for example, if the tenant of an apartment removes kitchen appliances that are attached to the apartment floors and walls. More commonly, the tenant breaks a window, damages walls or woodwork, or otherwise damages the apartment. Landlords typically protect against this type of voluntary waste by requiring a damage or security deposit from the tenant at the commencement of the lease. When the tenant vacates the apartment, the landlord inspects for waste. If the apartment has been damaged, the landlord will use part or all of the deposit for repairs. If the damage exceeds the deposit, however, the landlord may file an action seeking damages for the repairs not covered by the deposit.

Permissive waste is an injury caused by an omission, rather than an affirmative act, on the part of the tenant. This type of waste might occur, for example, if a tenant permits a house to fall into disrepair by not making reasonable maintenance repairs.

Ameliorating waste is an alteration in the physical characteristics of the premises by an unauthorized act of the tenant that increases the value of the property. For example, a tenant might make improvements that increase the value of the property, such as remodeling a bathroom. Generally, a tenant is not held liable if she commits this type of waste.

Equitable waste is a harm to the reversionary interest in land that is inconsistent with fruitful use. This cause of action is recognized only by courts of equity and is not regarded as legal waste in courts of law. For example, if the life tenant begins to cut down immature trees, the remainderperson, who will someday take possession of the property, may file an action in equity seeking an injunction to stop the cutting. The remainderperson would argue that the cutting imperils the productive use of the land in the future, because the value of the land after the immature trees have been cut would be decreased.

In an action for waste, a plaintiff commonly will seek damages for acts that have already occurred and request an injunction against future acts. A court will order an injunction if it finds that irreparable harm will occur and that the legal remedy would be inadequate, unless otherwise provided by statute. Certain laws provide for temporary relief if acts of waste are either threatened or committed.

The ordinary measure of damages for waste is the diminution in value of the property to the nonpossessor as a result of the acts of the possessor. This is frequently difficult to measure, particularly in situations where a significant period of time will elapse before the plaintiff is entitled to actual possession.


Landlord and Tenant; Life Estate.


views updated May 29 2018

A. desert land XII;

B. action of wasting XIII;

C. waste matter XV. — ONF. wast(e), var. of OF. guast(e), gast(e), partly repr. L. vāstum, n. of vāstus waste, desert, partly f. waster vb.
So waste adj. uncultivated, barren XIII; superfluous, refuse XV. — ONF. wast, var. of g(u)ast :- Rom. *wasto, repr. (with infl. from Frankish *wōsti) L. vāstus. waste vb. devastate, consume by loss, decay, etc. XIII; consume or expend uselessly XIV. — ONF. waster, var. of g(u)aster :- Rom. *wastāre, for L. vāstare. Hence wasteful causing devastation XIV; extravagant XV. waster (-ER1) XIV.


views updated May 17 2018

waste waste not, want not proverbial saying, late 18th century, advising against being wasteful with one's resources; want is used to mean either ‘lack’ or ‘desire’. (Compare wilful waste makes woeful want.)

See also haste makes waste, wilful waste makes woeful want.


views updated May 18 2018

1.. An area of unenclosed land used for common pasture.

2. Unlicensed felling of trees.

3.. Over-exploitation of woodland or wood-pasture or the failure to enclose coppice after felling, resulting in stock being allowed to graze to the detriment of the undergrowth.


views updated May 29 2018

waste An area of unenclosed land used for common pasture.