World Resources Institute WRI

Talking Trash: The world`s waste management problem


Courtesy of Courtesy of World Resources Institute WRI

Trash is a pervasive but unnoticed part of our lives. The great irony of waste management is that even the most efficient and well-run waste collection programs remain out of sight, ignored by the public that they serve. Only with failure does the omnipresence of trash really come to light. Today, many nations face a looming waste management crisis, as their landfills reach capacity and continue to degrade the environment. But new and innovative waste-collection and construction techniques – far cries from the dirty incinerators and vast landfills of the past – can help to reduce waste volume and minimize environmental and health impacts.

Waste management is linked to environmental quality in general, and climate change in particular. As paper, food, and other biodegradable waste breaks down in landfills, large amounts of methane are released. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is nearly 70 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide (CO2). Other heat-trapping gasses like nitrous oxide (nearly 300 times more powerful than CO2) are emitted when plastics and textiles are burned in incinerators. And more CO2 is emitted during the collection and transportation of waste to processing sites at landfills and incinerators.

Waste management also has a significant impact on human health. Chemicals from degrading waste can leak into aquifers and contaminate water supplies. Landfills and older incinerators can also release harmful dioxins, a cancer-causing carcinogen; air pollutants like NOx and SOx, which make up acid rain; and other kinds of particulate matter, which can cause respiratory illnesses. Landfills also provide shelter for disease-carrying agents like rats, flies, and other vermin.

A Tale of Two Cities

With its landfills full to capacity and its streets littered with thousands of tons of uncollected trash, the city of Naples, Italy, was recently forced to transport its waste by train to Hamburg, Germany. The city had previously closed schools for health reasons, as residents set fire to piles of accumulated trash. The two cities' situations highlight the many challenges and differing approaches to waste management.

Hamburg has heavily invested in modern waste-management technology. The city's new low-polluting incinerators have scrubbers and filters that prevent the emission of hazardous gases and particulate matter. The incinerators also produce large amounts of energy, which, since they were intentionally built close to the city center, can be used to heat nearby homes. As recently as 10 years ago, Hamburg generated 1.6 millions tons of waste, of which less than 4 percent was recycled. Today, the city – which has since grown in population – produces only 1.4 million tons and recycles nearly 60 percent of its waste.

By contrast, Naples, in the southern Italian region of Campania, has been slow to modernize its waste management plan, and like much of the rest of country has had chronic problems with garbage. In Campania in particular, poor governance and organized-crime syndicates' domination over garbage collection have hindered reform. The European Commission recently sued Italy, saying it had failed to comply with the EU's waste and landfill directives. The landfill directive requires Member States to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste they put into landfills to 75 percent of 1995 levels by 2010, then to 50 percent by 2013 and 35 percent by 2020. Some countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, already meet the 2020 target. But a 2005 European Commission report noted that most EU countries are not on track to meet even the earliest targets.

Rethinking Trash Day

The successes seen in countries like the Netherlands are in large part a result of innovative trash-collection programs. Many Dutch cities manage their waste with a 'pay-as-you-throw' (PAYT) scheme. PAYT programs come in several varieties. Residents of the city of Maastricht, for example, must buy plastic garbage bags based on how much waste they expect to generate; larger bags cost more money. Since the introduction of the program, the city's recycling rate has increased from 45 percent to 65 percent. Other cities have similar programs based on weight, which is tracked by a computer chip embedded in trashcans; households are charged for the total amount of non-recyclable waste they produce.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ranks different forms of waste management by their environmental impact. In the EPA hierarchy, re-use, recycling, and composting are preferred over landfills and incineration. But currently, around 55 percent of waste is sent to landfills. And while the number of landfills in the United States has fallen from 8,000 in 1988 to only 1,754 in 2006, new landfills tend to be much larger and built to service a wider area, meaning overall landfill capacity has remained the same.

Yet the picture is very different at the state level: at least five states have reported less than 10 years of remaining capacity. This has led to increased shipment of solid waste between states and regions. In 2003, states shipped 39 million tons of waste (around 16% of all waste generated), with New York as the largest exporter and Pennsylvania the largest importer. Increased shipment means not only increased CO2 emissions but also increased risk of spills and other potentially hazardous accidents.

Cities and localities are taking the initiative in modernizing their waste-management plans. According to EPA surveys, there are now more than 7,000 communities in the United States using some form of PAYT, or around 26 percent of all communities. Some states, like Oregon, Washington, and Minnesota, have laws that require statewide PAYT use. In the U.S., PAYT programs have been shown to reduce waste generation by between 4.6 and 8.3 million tons annually, and provide significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – while not significantly raising monthly costs for average households.

Mismanagement of waste can have harmful effects on the environment and on human health. In many countries, landfills are at or near full capacity. Expanded recycling, coupled with innovative trash-collection schemes and modern, clean incinerators can reduce the volume of waste produced while simultaneously reducing GHG emissions and providing heat for homes and businesses.

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