Waste includes anything that households, businesses, farms or industry produce but do not want. It includes both useful materials, which can be reused or recycled, and hazardous waste such as discarded food, broken electrical equipment, hospital waste, industrial chemicals, sewage, pesticide residues and more.
Waste can pose many threats to human health, either directly or indirectly but the way it is managed — which varies greatly from place to place — can also create new environmental health threats.
Two of the most common approaches are to bury waste in landfill sites or to burn it through incinerators, but both options can bring problems.
Landfill takes up a large area of land and in many places there is no longer any free space to bury waste. Poorly designed and managed landfill sites can create unpleasant smells, attract vermin such as rats and seagulls, and pollute local land and water.
As materials in landfill sites decay they can release large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. However, with the right technology, this gas can be tapped and used as a source of fuel. Meanwhile, as water filters through a landfill site it can pick up toxins and carry them elsewhere, potentially contaminating groundwater or other local water bodies.
Incinerators have become a popular alternative to landfill. They take up less space and can destroy hazardous waste that is unsafe to bury (such as medical waste). They can reduce the mass of waste by 90 percent and, with the right technology, they can use the heat produced by burning rubbish to generate electricity.
But incinerators also put toxic pollutants such as dioxin and heavy metals into the atmosphere where they contribute to air pollution. Incinerators also produce unpleasant smells and large quantities of ash, which must then be disposed of — often in landfill sites.
Incinerators tend to be unpopular with local communities who fear they will cause health problems and reduce the value of their property, but they also create problems vary far away as the pollution they emit can travel thousands of kilometers. Another downside of incinerators is that they work best when they work continuously so they may not create an incentive to reduce the flow of waste.
Burial or burning are not appropriate for some forms of waste such as sewage and nuclear waste (see Nuclear Power Plants). Other forms of waste — such as runoff from agricultural land — are difficult to capture and control.
Illegal dumping of waste is also a big problem, especially in countries were laws are weakly enforced.
The best strategy for limiting the potential health threats from waste are to prevent or reduce the amount produced. Following this, recycling and composting can both greatly reduce the amount of waste that must be disposed of.
The majority of waste in most countries is made of up materials such as paper, glass and metal — that could be sorted and recycled — as well as plant material and food waste that could be used to create compost. Even waste water can be recycled and used to irrigate and fertilize farmland (see this 2010 UNEP report [PDF]).
Going beyond conventional recycling, the “zero waste” movement tries to promote ways to ensure that waste products have a value as inputs for other uses, so that there is an economic incentive to replace traditional waste streams with circular systems that eliminate the need for waste management.
One way to do this is for retailers to charge a refundable premium on products sold in glass bottles. This encourages consumers to return bottles to stores intact, rather than discard or even recycle them.
In most settings however, landfill and incineration are still the norm. Incinerators can be fitted with scrubbers and filters that reduce the amount of pollution they produce, and increasingly governments regulate towards lower emissions.
To reduce the threats from international movements of hazardous waste — especially from developed to less developed countries — a legally binding treaty called the Basel Convention was created and entered into force in 1992.
Landfills and incinerators vary greatly in their design, safety standards and siting, so any journalist reporting on an existing or planned landfill or incinerator should be familiar with the specifics.
This will involve finding out about the volume and types of waste, what environmental and health safeguards there are, what level of public consultation has taken place and which national or local agency is responsible for authorizing and regulating the site.
One way for journalists to make waste-reporting a human story is to focus on where the waste is produced and where it goes. There has been a long history of governments locating waste disposal sites away from their richest citizens and close to poorer groups, including minorities, slum-dwellers and other marginalized communities.
As many places are running out of space to use for landfill, and because the costs of building new incinerators are high, economics is playing an important role in determining the fate of waste. This has led to an increase in illegal dumping, which also often taken place close to such communities.
With all of these factors in mind, however, it is important for journalists to be able to judge the true risks associated with any waste disposal facility and how these risks and any economic costs balance with the benefits of dealing with growing quantities of waste.
CASE STUDY – Taiwan’s evolving response to growing waste
In many parts of the world, rapid development is creating new mountains of waste that must be disposed of. The experiences of Taiwan over recent decades have lessons for other regions.
By the 1990s, Taiwan was running low on space to bury waste in landfill sites and, increasingly, private companies were taking on the job of disposing of waste but were burying it in poor communities. This led the government to develop a policy of one incinerator per county, but in areas where the incinerators were located there was widespread opposition from local people.
Environmental organizations began to raise the profile of health threats associated with waste management and — with the government — encouraged people to produce less waste and recycle more. This resulted in there being less waste for incinerators to burn, and one-third of planned incinerators were either never built or never went into operation.
For more detail, read this ChinaDialogue article by Ma Jun.