Managing Growing Waste Generation

An enormous quantity of waste is generated and disposed of annually. Alarmingly, this quantity continues to increase on an annual basis. Industries generate and dispose of over 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid wastes each year, and it is estimated that over 40 million tons of this waste is hazardous. Nuclear wastes, as well as medical wastes, are also increasing in quantity every year.

Generally speaking, developed nations generate more waste than developing nations due to higher consumption rates. Not surprisingly, the United States generates more waste per capita than any other country. High waste per capita rates are also very common throughout Europe and developed nations in Asia and Oceania. In the United States, about 243 million tons (243 trillion kg) of MSW is generated annually, equal to about 4.3 pounds (1.95 kg) of waste per person per day. Nearly 34 percent of MSW is recovered and recycled or composted, approximately 12 percent is burned in combustion facilities, and the remaining 54 percent is disposed of in landfills. Waste stream percentages also vary widely by region. For example, San Francisco, California, captures and recycles nearly 75 percent of its waste material, whereas Houston, Texas, recycles less than three percent.

Concerning waste mitigation options, landfilling is quickly evolving into a less desirable or feasible option. Landfill capacity in the United States has been declining primarily due to (a) older existing landfills that are increasingly reaching their authorized capacity, (b) the promulgation of stricter environmental regulations has made the permitting and siting of new landfills increasingly difficult, (c) public opposition (e.g., “Not In My Backyard” or NIMBYism) delays or, in many cases, prevent the approval of new landfills or expansion of existing facilities.

Effects of Improper Waste Disposal and Unauthorized Releases

Before the passage of environmental regulations, wastes were disposed of improperly without considering the potential effects on public health and the environment. This practice has led to numerous contaminated sites where soils and groundwater have been contaminated and pose a risk to public safety. Of more than 36,000 environmentally impacted candidate sites, more than 1,400 sites are listed under the Superfund program National Priority List (NPL) that require immediate cleanup resulting from acute, imminent threats to environmental and human health. The USEPA identified about 2,500 additional contaminated sites that eventually require remediation. The United States Department of Defense maintains 19,000 sites, many of which have been extensively contaminated from various uses and disposal practices. Further, approximately 400,000 underground storage tanks have been confirmed or are suspected of leaking, contaminating underlying soils and groundwater. Over $10 billion (more than $25 billion in current dollars) were specifically allocated by CERCLA and subsequent amendments to mitigate impacted sites. However, the USEPA has estimated that the value of environmental remediation exceeds $100 billion. Alarmingly, if past expenditures on NPL sites are extrapolated across remaining and proposed NPL sites, this total may be significantly higher – well into the trillions of dollars.

It is estimated that more than 4,700 facilities in the United States currently treat, store, or dispose of hazardous wastes. About 3,700 facilities that house approximately 64,000 solid waste management units (SWMUs) may require corrective action. Accidental spillage of hazardous wastes and nuclear materials due to anthropogenic operations or natural disasters has also caused enormous environmental damage, as evidenced by the events such as the facility failure in Chornobyl, Ukraine (formerly USSR) in 1986, the effects of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan.

Adverse Impacts on Public Health

Various chemicals are present within waste materials, many of which pose a significant environmental concern. Though the leachate generated from the wastes may contain toxic chemicals, the concentrations and variety of toxic chemicals are quite small compared to hazardous waste sites. For example, explosives and radioactive wastes are primarily located at Department of Energy (DOE) sites because many facilities have historically been used for weapons research, fabrication, testing, and training. Organic contaminants are largely found at oil refineries or petroleum storage sites, and inorganic and pesticide contamination usually results from various industrial and agricultural activities. Yet, soil and groundwater contamination is not the only direct adverse effect of improper waste management activities – recent studies have also shown that greenhouse gas emissions from the wastes are significant, exacerbating global climate change.

A wide range of toxic chemicals, with an equally wide distribution of respective concentrations, is found in waste streams. These compounds may be present in concentrations that alone may threaten human health or have a synergistic/cumulative effect due to the presence of other compounds. Exposure to hazardous wastes has been linked to many types of cancer, chronic illnesses, and abnormal reproductive outcomes such as birth defects, low birth weights, and spontaneous abortions. Many studies have been performed on major toxic chemicals found at hazardous waste sites incorporating epidemiological or animal tests to determine their toxic effects.

As an example, the effects of radioactive materials are classified as somatic or genetic. The somatic effects may be immediate or occur over a long period of time. Immediate effects from large radiation doses often produce nausea and vomiting and may be followed by severe blood changes, hemorrhage, infection, and death. Delayed effects include leukemia and many types of cancer, including bone, lung, and breast. Genetic effects have been observed in which gene mutations or chromosome abnormalities result in measurable harmful effects, such as decreased life expectancy, increased susceptibility to sickness or disease, infertility, or even death during embryonic stages. Because of these studies, occupational dosage limits have been recommended by the National Council on Radiation Protection. Similar studies have been completed for a wide range of potentially hazardous materials. These studies have, in turn, been used to determine safe exposure levels for numerous exposure scenarios, including those that consider occupational safety and remediation standards for various land use scenarios, including residential, commercial, and industrial land uses.

Adverse Impacts on the Environment

The chemicals found in waste pose a threat to human health and have profound effects on entire ecosystems. Contaminants may change the chemistry of waters and destroy aquatic life and underwater ecosystems dependent upon more complex species. Contaminants may also enter the food chain through plants or microbiological organisms, and higher, more evolved organisms bioaccumulate the wastes through subsequent ingestion. The continued bioaccumulation results in increased contaminant mass and concentration as the contaminants move farther up the food chain. In many cases, toxic concentrations are reached, resulting in increased mortality of one or more species. As the populations of these species decrease, the natural inter-species balance is affected. With decreased numbers of predators or food sources, other species may be drastically affected, leading to a chain reaction that can affect a wide range of flora and fauna within a specific ecosystem. As the ecosystem continues to deviate from equilibrium, disastrous consequences may occur. Examples include the near extinction of the bald eagle due to persistent ingestion of DDT-impacted fish and the depletion of oysters, crabs, and fish in the Chesapeake Bay due to excessive quantities of fertilizers, toxic chemicals, farm manure wastes, and power plant emissions.


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Introduction to Environmental Sciences and Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Emily P. Harris is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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