Revised August 14, 2021
If you live in the U.S., then your share of one day’s production of trash is about four and a half pounds. Besides what you throw away personally, everything you buy represents a lot of trash before it gets to the store shelves. We have a huge municipal solid waste disposal problem. And our methods of dealing with them don’t work as they ought.
We say we throw stuff away, but where’s away? Out of the house. Out of town perhaps, but not out of this world. It’s all right here somewhere.
Too much of it ends up as litter. Proper waste disposal means most of it goes to the landfill. Some towns are returning to the old practice of building incinerators. Of course, some refuse gets recycled or composted. All of these waste disposal methods have undesirable environmental consequences.
The trouble with littering
Surely no one approves of solid waste disposal by littering, but too many of us often find it more convenient to dump something than carry it to a trash can. Litter is an eyesore. It destroys the beauty of scenery, people’s yards, or just the side of the road.
What’s more, litter harms wildlife. A hungry animal may get its head stuck in a plastic jar. Or cut itself on the ragged edges of a tin can. It may eat bits of trash. If birds eat plastic, they don’t eliminate it. Eventually it fills their stomach so there’s no room for food. They starve.
Light-weight trash will eventually make it to a waterway. The mightiest river starts out as a tiny stream somewhere. The water will flow over rocks and past roots and tree branches. A few plastic bags stuck in the way of the stream makes a flooding hazard in heavy rain. How many people’s houses suffer flood damage from a creek that could have handled the water if it hadn’t been blocked by trash?
From the waterway it eventually goes into the ocean. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It stretches for hundreds of miles. It’s not the only ocean garbage patch, just the largest.
The junk doesn’t stay close enough together that it’s feasible to gather it up. Instead of being a hazard to land animals and birds, it disrupts marine life. Cleaning up the ocean is probably impossible.
The trouble with landfills
Among municipal solid waste disposal methods, the modern sanitary landfill is the most prevalent in the US. It is a descendant of very unsanitary dumps. There used to be thousands of dumps, which bred germs and smelled vile.
They have been replaced by much larger and more efficient landfills.
A landfill at best is like a mad chemistry experiment to find out what happens to a mixture of random and often toxic chemicals.
Rain water would dissolve all of this mess in the old dumps. Nasty stuff would leach out into nearby streams or the ground water. Now we have leachate collection systems, but they don’t work perfectly.
Landfills also produce methane. Not only is it a potent greenhouse gas, it’s also a fire and explosion hazard. Natural gas is methane. In principle, we could capture it and use it. In practice, it’s just flared off. Burning off methane wastes it, but at least it’s less environmentally harmful than just letting it escape into the atmosphere.
What with all the liners and requirements that the day’s trash get covered with dirt, nothing decomposes in landfills at a normal rate any more. If it decomposed, it would eventually take less space. Space is a big problem. Landfills eventually fill up. We’re running out of places geographically suitable to build new ones.
And geographically suitable for waste disposal doesn’t mean politically acceptable. Landfills and other solid waste disposal facilities are disproportionately located in low-income areas, and especially in communities of color. Finding where to put a new one is no longer only a waste disposal problem. It has also become a social justice issue.
The trouble with incinerators (waste to energy)
Cities have tried on and off for more than a century to burn trash. European nations depend on it for their solid waste disposal. However, the vogue for municipal incinerators has never lasted long in the US. They’re expensive to build, difficult to maintain, and have a short life span.
The process of burning anything produces gases, ash, and small particulate matter, all toxic. The current generation of municipal solid waste incinerators much more efficiently keeps harmful gasses out of the atmosphere.
On the other hand, the ash, like coal ash, contains heavy metals that are dangerous in large concentrations. I would hope that the trash incineration industry is learning from the coal industry’s experience with ash. Alas, humans as a species don’t seem very good at learning lessons.
The EPA issues standards for particulate matter, but conditions that satisfy its requirements aren’t necessarily safe. We still haven’t discovered adequate filters for it.
A lot of our trash is potentially valuable and ought to be recycled. Maybe some day it will become economically feasible to mine old landfills to recover it. In incinerators, though, it literally goes up in smoke.
Finding a place to build an incinerator is only slightly easier than finding a place for a new landfill. There are no comparable geographic restraints, but no one wants to live near one. People tend to complain—loudly—at proposals to build any new waste treatment facility.
Nowadays, incinerators are used to convert waste to energy. Trash, after all, is an infinitely renewable resource that we’ll never run out of. It can potentially become a rival of solar and wind power—which is probably of greatest concern to people involved in those industries. More seriously, it can also discourage people from recycling.
The trouble with recycling
Recycling surely counts as the most popular municipal solid waste disposal method. In principle, everything is recyclable. In practice, little actually gets recycled. There are a number of reasons.
Most important, recycling works best if people sort it. Most people are too lazy to separate recyclables. Therefore, most cities rely on single stream recycling and let costly machinery separate it. The output has such a high contamination rate that China slammed the door on importing recycling. And, of course, litterers are too lazy even to take their discards to a trash can.
Also, recycling programs must limit what they accept. The economics of recycling doesn’t add up if no nearby company will buy a particular kind of waste. Commodity prices fluctuate wildly.
When the price for something accepted for recycling is very low, the municipality has some poor choices: sell it at a loss, pay for storage in hopes that the price will go up some time, or send it to the landfill.
Plastic is probably the largest single problem in municipal solid waste disposal. Some kinds of plastic are not used and discarded enough to make it worth sorting them out and selling them.
The plastic wastes with the numbers 1 and 2 in the recycling triangle are the easiest to recycle. If any PVC (no. 3) or PP (no. 5) gets accidentally mixed into a batch of PET (no. 1), it ruins the whole batch. Pyrolysis is a good but still uncommon disposal method. Otherwise, such a batch can only be landfilled or burned.
When all goes well, and the recycling process goes on as intended, it can still have bad environmental consequences. Making products with waste matter is every bit as much an industrial process as making them from virgin material. All industrial processes cause pollution. Ironically, recycling companies may cause more pollution than others.
The trouble with composting
As a municipal solid waste disposal method, composting specifically means industrial composting. Industrial composting treats large volumes of waste, at least 2,000 tons per year and, in especially large operations, more than 100,000 tons per year.
In most cases, heavy machinery creates and turns windrows, long and narrow heaps of organic materials. These windrows heat to a much higher temperature than a backyard compost heap. Therefore, industrial composting can handle meat products, biodegradable plastics, and other materials you can’t compost at home. (Not all industrial composting facilities accept bioplastics, by the way.)
I said at the beginning that all municipal solid waste disposal methods have undesirable consequences for the environment. Composting probably has the least of all of them. It does require electricity and fossil fuels to run all the equipment, however.
That said, the major disadvantage of industrial composting for municipal solid waste is the way it’s collected. Until 1960, households had to separate wet garbage from dry trash. Then, starting in Los Angeles, municipalities started collecting mixed garbage instead.
Environmental issues hardly came to public attention at all back then. There seems to be little likelihood of persuading the public to separate trash from garbage from recycling. So now, it is prohibitively expensive to build equipment to separate organic from inorganic waste. And industrial composting is already more expensive than any of the other municipal waste disposal methods.
So what can we do about municipal solid waste disposal?
There is no perfect way to deal with waste. Don’t hold your breath waiting for some waste disposal process that has no negative impact on the environment. The best practice for individuals is not to generate waste in the first place.
- Don’t buy more food than you’ll eat before it spoils.
- Compost your banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, and other inedible byproducts of your meals. (Unfortunately, you’d have to buy an expensive composting system in order to add bones and fat to the mix.)
- Take cloth bags into stores to avoid bringing home plastic or paper bags.
- All else being equal, choose the product with the least packaging.
- Don’t buy bottled water.
- Reuse, repurpose, or donate items instead of discarding them.
These suggestions are merely a start. A sustainable lifestyle means forming new, greener habits a few at a time. You can always find suggestions for a zero-waste lifestyle that you haven’t thought of before.
Can Recycling be Bad for the Environment? / Amy Westervelt (Forbes, April 25, 2012)
Garbage Incinerators Make Comeback, Kindling both Garbage and Debate / Timothy Williams (New York Times, January 15, 2015)
How does industrial composting work? / Carbiolice. February 26, 2021
Trash Trivia / Major Waste Disposal [link no longer works as of October 2017]
Waste treatment and disposal methods / Rick Leblanc, The Balance Small Business. May 9, 2019