Have you ever thought about what happens to your trash after the waste truck picks it up that one day each week from your curbside or your school campus? Every week in the U.S., households, businesses and institutions produce approximately 4.7 million tons of waste or over 245 million tons per year (1)! How can we manage all this waste to reduce the environmental impact?
Less is Best
Without a doubt, the best way to manage waste is to create less of it by reducing your consumption of energy-intensive manufactured goods. Before you think about the most environmentally friendly way to dispose of your waste (e.g., recycling or composting), consider what you can do to prevent waste. Having less waste to dispose (and in turn conserving resources, reducing pollutants, and saving energy) is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of waste. For example, using fabric tote bags (instead of paper or plastic) to carry your groceries and filling up your own re-usable travel coffee mug (instead of paper cups) at cafés are small ways to create less waste.
Reducing waste doesn’t only pertain to paper and plastic; minimizing food waste is also important because of its impact on climate change. At your café (especially if it has an “all you care to eat” station) take less than what you think you’ll eat and go back for seconds rather than taking too much and wasting leftovers.
There are various methods of waste management and disposal and each system affects the environment differently. There is no one “right answer” because proper waste management depends on many factors, including the availability of municipal facilities and the type of waste material. Below are summaries of common ways our waste is managed.
One of the most traditional disposal practices is taking garbage to a landfill. Historically, landfills used to be nothing more than open pits in the ground that were filled with trash. Needless to say, the resulting odors, air pollutants and flies became a significant problem, which led to the development of “sanitary” landfills. These new landfills are designed to contain water pollutants, for example, but environmental groups argue that they are not really that different than traditional pits (2).
Combusting waste at high temperatures is called incineration. The recent development of “waste-to-energy” facilities not only decreases the amount of waste sent to landfills, but also utilizes the combustion process to produce steam and electricity. However, the benefits of incinerating are highly controversial because the process can pollute the environment with heavy metals and toxic gas emissions such as dioxin (3).
Recycling is the reprocessing of materials such as glass, plastic, paper and metal. Benefits of recycling include reducing the energy and raw materials needed to produce brand new resources as well as reducing the amount of waste for disposal (4). Critics question, though, whether or not the amount of energy consumed in the recycling process (collecting, transporting, processing) makes it worthwhile (5).
In the U.S. today, 32% of our waste is recycled (4). Although this is double the amount recycled 15 years ago, there is still much room for improvement.
Composting is the controlled decomposition of waste materials such as food scraps, plant material and paper products into organic matter. The resulting biodegradable substance can be used as mulch or fertilizer for agricultural or landscaping functions (6).
Composting appropriate materials can significantly benefit the environment by reducing climate change. For example, organic waste such as food scraps and biodegradable disposables that is taken to a landfill emits methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. However, if these organic wastes are composted properly, they don't cause emissions. According to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, landfills are second only to livestock production in causing methane, greatly contributing to global warming (7).
Although recycling is a great way to manage waste, it still takes energy and other resources to collect, process, and produce recycled materials. Reducing overall waste by using china instead of disposable food containers, for example, is the most environmentally responsible approach.
1. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste. Accessed June 2007.
2. Brower, Michael and Leon, Warren. The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices: Practical Advice from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Three Rivers Press, New York: 1999.
3. Greenpeace International. Incineration: The Problem. Accessed August 2007.
4. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Municipal Solid Waste-Recycling. Accessed August 2007.
5. Tierney, John. “Recycling…Is Garbage.” New York Times; June 30, 1996. (article reproduced) Accessed August 2007.
6. Earth 911. Composting. Accessed August 2007.
7. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed June 2007.