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Waste Management

Waste management

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 gallons (3,790,000 l) of drinking water .

Every individual, business or organization must make decisions and take some responsibility regarding the management of their 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.

History of waste management

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 than 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 rapid increase in government regulation since about the early 1970s is a phenomenon that has had an enormous impact on all forms of waste management. This has been especially true in the United States, but it has also occurred in many other countries.

Municipal solid waste

Municipal solid waste (MSW) 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. However, MSW does not include toilet wastes or other liquid wastes from these sources, which are commonly handled through public sewage treatment systems.

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 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, beginning 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 70–90%. The remainder of the incinerated MSW 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.

Even the earliest civilizations recycled some items before they became garbage. For example, broken pottery was often ground up and used to make new pottery. Recycling has taken many forms. One unusual type of recycling was common in large United States cities from about 1900 to 1930. This involved so-called reduction plants, where food waste, dead horses , and other dead animals were cooked in large vats to produce grease and fertilizer. A more familiar, and certainly less unappealing, type of recycling took place during World War II, when all scrap metal was fervently collected to help the war effort. Modern-day recycling has had two recent "booms," from about 1969 to 1974, and from the late 1980s until the present.

Reuse and repair are the earliest forms of waste prevention, which is also 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 tried to find other uses for them. People are again realizing the value of reuse, and are increasingly doing this with furniture, clothing, and disused building materials. In fact, some of these reuse activities are becoming quite fashionable.

Refillable soft drink bottles are another example of reuse. These are still the norm in many countries, but have become increasingly rare in the United States. 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.

Agricultural, mining, and industrial waste

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 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 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.

Hazardous wastes are also disposed at specially designed landfills and incinerators. A controversial issue in international relations is the export of hazardous waste, usually from relatively wealthy industrialized countries, to poorer developing nations. Such exports often take place with the stated intent of recycling, but many of the wastes end up being dumped.

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.

Hazardous wastes also come from common household products that contain toxic chemicals. Examples include drain cleaner, pesticides, glue, paint, paint thinner, air freshener, detergent, and nail polish. Until about the early 1970s, most people dumped these products in their domestic garbage. However, local waste managers do not want hazardous domestic wastes in with the regular garbage. They also do not want residents to pour leftover household chemicals down the drain, since municipal sewage treatment plants are not properly equipped to treat them.

The trend during the 1980s and 1990s was for local governments to open facilities where residents could take their household hazardous wastes, or to sponsor periodic collection events for those materials. City and county governments in the United States conduct more than 800 of these events each year.

Modern practices

Three main, inter-related factors influence the way wastes are handled today: government regulation, cost, and public attitudes. Industry and local governments must comply with increasingly strict federal and state regulations for landfills and incinerators. Partly because those regulations have driven up the costs of disposal, it has become critical for local governments, industry and businesses of all sizes to find the lowest-cost waste management options.

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 clout 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. The recycling rate is expected to rise to 25% by the year 2000.

Waste prevention

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.

Waste prevention is preferable over recycling or municipal composting programs, because it does not require transportation, processing, and administration. However, waste prevention does have limitations. It will never eliminate waste; it just reduces the amount that has to be recycled or disposed. Waste prevention also is extremely difficult for a government to measure, since waste that is prevented never really existed in the first place. The lack of good data can make it hard for governments to justify spending money on education programs in support of waste prevention. Even though waste prevention is less expensive than other forms of waste management in the long run, local governments and businesses may need to spend substantial amounts over the short term, to provide education about waste prevention or to make changes in operating procedures so that less waste is produced. Waste prevention can also be a valuable tool for managing industrial and hazardous wastes, since disposal of those materials is particularly expensive and heavily regulated.

Farmers can use natural or alternative methods of pest control to replace some or all of their use of pesticides, which in turn reduces the amount of hazardous wastes produced. Many government agencies strongly encourage this. A program started by the province of Ontario, Canada, aims to reduce agricultural pesticide use by 50%.

Recycling and composting

Recycling is a simple concept: using disused (or waste) material to make a new product. In practice, however, recycling is far from simple. Recycling consists of three essential elements: collection of the waste materials, also known as secondary materials or recyclables; processing those materials and manufacturing them into new products; and the marketing and sale of those new products. Dozens of different materials can be recycled, including glass bottles, aluminum cans, steel cans, plastic bottles, many types of paper, used motor oil, car batteries, and scrap metal. For each material, the collection, processing, and marketing needs can be quite different.

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 paper, is 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, Canada, collects food waste from households and composts it in large, central facilities. For more details on recycling and composting, see the entries on those topics.

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.

New developments in disposal

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.

Trends for the twenty-first century

Even with the tremendous increase in the regulation of waste since the early 1970s, many problems still exist with hazardous and other wastes. Citizens often express their concerns about this issue. However, governments have a limited amount of money to spend on environmental protection. As the twenty-first century begins, governments and industry strive to continue to improve the efficiency of recycling and disposal. Governments in the United States and elsewhere will also rely more on waste prevention strategies, because of their lower cost and greater environmental benefit.

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 Emission; Pollution.



American Water Works Association. Water Quality and Treatment. 5th ed. Denver: American Water Works Association, 1999.

Hirschhorn, Joel, and Kirsten Oldenburg. Prosperity Without Pollution: The Prevention Strategy for Industry and Consumers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.

Miller, E. Willard, and Ruby Miller. Environmental Hazards: Toxic Waste and Hazardous Material: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1991.

Rathje, William, and Cullen Murphy. Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1992.


Nakamura. "Input-Output Analysis Of Waste Management." Journal Of Industrial Ecology 6, no. 1 (2002): 39-63.


The League of Women Voters Education Fund. The Garbage Primer. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1993.

Tom Watson


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

—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.

Hazardous wastes

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


—The burning of solid waste as a disposal method.


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


—The use of disused (or waste) materials, also known as secondary materials or recyclables, to produce new products.

Source reduction

—Reduction in the quantity or toxicity of material used for a product or packaging; this is a form of waste prevention.

Waste prevention

—A waste management method that involves preventing waste from being created, or reducing waste.

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