waste disposal problems and solutions

Wherever you are in the world, waste is a consistent by-product of daily living. And the massive volumes of waste being rapidly generated at a runaway pace make it an inescapable problem that has the potential to overwhelm us all.

According to the World Bank, the 2 billion tonnes of waste that is currently being generated each year is set to increase by over 70% to 3.4 billion tonnes within the next 20 years. Worse still, at least a third of waste is disposed of in an environmentally unsafe way!

Whichever way you look at it, waste is a big problem. But hopefully, there are solutions. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at 15 waste disposal problems and solutions that could improve our environment.

Waste is a growing problem

Since the latter half of the 20th century, the rate and volume of waste generation have been accelerating. Factors that include economic growth and expanding consumerism, along with urbanization, migration, and smaller and more fragmented households have led to waste generation of at least 2 billion metric tons each year.

The immense quantities of waste that need to be processed require countries to develop expansive infrastructures for waste processing and disposal, which are often beyond the resources of less economically developed nations. Even economically advanced nations are struggling to implement strategies that would lead to adequate recycling levels and more innovative landfill management.

largest landfills globally chart
Size of some of the largest landfills globally as of 2019 (in acres)
Source: Statista

Key sources and types of waste

The types and sources of waste are diverse, adding to the challenge of finding effective waste processing solutions. Waste is generated by every area of a functional society including:

  • Residential households
  • The commercial sector
  • The agricultural sector
  • Industry
  • Construction
  • Social institutions like schools, prisons, and hospitals

The waste generated can be divided into four major groups:

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)

This is the everyday waste generated in residences and by commercial and institutional activity. Major components of MSW include food waste, plastic, paper, metal, glass, and rags. MSW may also include industrial waste from construction and hazardous waste like discarded batteries or medicine.

Industrial Waste 

Industrial Solid Waste is determined by the industrial activity that generates the waste. Materials in industrial waste include demolition waste, packaging, oils, sludges, abrasives, wood, plastic, glass, and solvents. Industrial waste can vary in its hazardousness and environmental toxicity.

Agricultural Waste 

The agricultural sector generates significant amounts of non-hazardous and hazardous waste, which has increased with the expansion of this sector. Waste sources include livestock waste, crop residues, and various by-products of agricultural production and food processing.

Agricultural waste includes liquid and slurry waste that can become a significant environmental pollutant if it is not properly managed.

Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste is generated by sources that include construction, manufacturing, and healthcare. There are hundreds of thousands of toxic chemicals in mainstream use with thousands of novel substances added each year. Hazardous waste requires the most stringent standards of storage and disposal to prevent harm to human health and the environment.

Waste disposal is an urgent issue

The acceleration of global waste generation makes waste disposal an issue that cannot be ignored. As income levels increase, so does the per capita waste volume. By 2050 high-income countries are expected to have a 19% increase in the volume of waste they generate, but low and middle-income countries are projected to generate 40% more waste as their economies advance.

This is because waste generation has a greater increase for incremental increases in income in poorer countries compared to their wealthier counterparts. The largest proportion of the world’s waste (23%) is generated by East Asia and Pacific region countries, with Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia on a course to triple their total waste generation by 2050.

aerial view of landfill on shore
Landfill site in Indonesia

Environmental impacts of waste are mounting

Waste, in its various forms, is a leading environmental pollutant and is negatively impacting human health. One of the biggest environmental issues is the open dumping of unprocessed waste, a primary form of MSW disposal in many poorer nations. Often where waste is not dumped it is inadequately burned leading to a deterioration in air quality. Here are the main types of pollution caused by waste:

  • Land pollution: Land is not only affected by the physical presence of rotting waste but also substances that leach into the soil, contaminating it. If hazardous substances or agricultural waste are improperly disposed of, they can cause long-term pollution that makes the land unfit for habitation or cultivation.
  • Water pollution: Run-off from agricultural slurry and other wastes can contaminate surface bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and reservoirs. This leads to problems like eutrophication and plant or wildlife die-offs.

    Groundwater contamination from effluents or chemicals contaminates drinking water, endangering human health. And seas and oceans are affected by the 5.25 trillion macro and micro pieces of waste plastic they currently contain.
  • Air pollution: Up to 1 billion metric tons (41%) of waste are burned worldwide, with open burning of MSW being a significant contributor. Waste burning and the decomposition of landfill and dumped waste releases greenhouse gases and notable air pollutants like methane, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide.

Without intervention, waste becomes a major public health issue with significant loss of habitats and ecosystems. The environmental degradation caused by waste is also a driver of macroeconomic and geopolitical instability as reduced land and resource availability fuels migration and war.

Current waste treatment and disposal methods are not sustainable

Modern waste management methods are limited in their ability to deal with a burgeoning waste mountain that is constantly increasing in size. In most societies, the options for municipal waste management are limited to:

  1. Recycling
  2. Compositing
  3. Incineration
  4. Landfill
  5. Chemical and biological treatments

The unsustainable growth in waste, driven by global demographic changes and consumption means that these mature methods of waste treatment and disposal used in most developed nations are already being exhausted by the volumes of waste produced.

For developing countries the hurdle to developing a sustainable waste management infrastructure is even higher, competing with other necessities like clean water and energy provision. However, neglect of waste management will prove to be costly to society, as these tragic cases demonstrate:

  • The Quezon City landslide (2000): The collapse of a garbage dump in Quezon City in the Philippines led to a major landslide that killed up to 1000 people and destroyed hundreds of homes.
  • Major flooding in Accra, Ghana (2015):  Plastic waste blocking drains on the streets of Accra, was a major contributor to a catastrophic flood that killed 150 people.
  • Pneumonic/bubonic plague-like outbreak in Surat, India (1994): Over 5000 residents became ill and 53 people died in Surat, India, because of uncollected waste becoming a breeding ground for disease vectors.
Payatas dumpsite
Payatas dumpsite in Quezon City, Philippines (2010)
Source: Wikimedia / Patrick Roque

We need to do waste differently

The international community is taking a new approach to waste disposal. The perspective on waste is slowly changing from how to deal with waste after it has been discarded, to how to prevent waste from being generated in the first place. In addition, stakeholders hope that waste can be transformed into a managed resource, that could be beneficial to society.

15 waste disposal problems and solutions

Finding novel solutions to the waste disposal problem requires a shift in thinking about waste. Processing and using waste as a resource coupled with an economic model that favors repair, recycling, and reuse might just bring the runaway waste problem under control. Here are 14 waste disposal problems and solutions:

1. Combat waste plastic by building plastic roads

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, almost 36 million tons of plastic waste are generated each year, with only 5% of this amount being recycled. Plastic is a pernicious problem that has a long-lasting harmful environmental impact. 

But now several companies are offering a revolutionary solution that will not only repurpose large amounts of waste plastic but also improve road quality. Enterprising companies are using waste plastic to create a sustainable alternative to the bitumen that is routinely used for road surfacing.

Plastic road surfaces are smooth, long-lasting, and even recyclable at the end of their lifespans. Local plastic waste can be used to make local roads! These roads and car parks have already been successfully installed in New York City. Plastic road company McRebur hopes that their roads are the start of a plastic economy that can be rolled out across the world.

recycled glass and plastic road
First recycled glass and plastic road in NSW at Engadine (Australia)
Source: Wikimedia / Maksym Kozlenko

2. Use black soldier fly larvae to combat agricultural waste

When it comes to agricultural waste, the black soldier fly may be the sector’s secret weapon! According to sustainable poultry consultancy, The Big Book Project, black soldier fly larvae are a nutritional powerhouse for poultry, and it thrives on organic agricultural waste. 

The black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), is a fly species that is found across Africa, Europe, and Australasia. Its larvae are prolific feeders of food and animal waste, including manure. Not only do the larvae grow into a protein-rich food source for poultry, but they also turn the waste into valuable compost, free of obnoxious odor.

The University of Florida found that 45,000 of these maggots can digest over 24 kg of swine manure within two weeks. Black Soldier Fly larvae are already being adopted in countries like Kenya, with studies underway for large-scale production in the U.S. and Europe.

3. Cut down on waste glass by building with it

Though it is relatively easy to recycle glass, waste glass from demolition in the construction sector often heads straight to the landfill joining the 7.6 million tons of glass that end up there each year. Dots needs to be joined up on end-of-life building glass to save on the tens of millions of tonnes of primary raw materials and energy for producing new glass.

New initiatives for the reuse of end-of-life façade glass are changing things. Building contractors can ensure that waste glass is used as the following new building materials:

  • Cullet – a form of crushed waste glass that can be used as an aggregate
  • Glassphalt – a novel, durable road-surfacing material
  • Composite glass worktops, tiles, and splashbacks
  • Glass beads
  • Spun or foam glass insulation
recycled glass terrazzo tiles
Recycled glass terrazzo tiles
Source: Flickr / John Lambert Pearso

Proactive use of waste glass in construction has the potential to create a closed loop with glass being recycled and repurposed indefinitely. Governments can support construction companies in recycling waste glass by removing onerous waste management regulations that may make it easier for contractors to dump glass.

4. Reduce unnecessary packaging through Zero Waste stores

Bags, bottle wrappers, jars, and lids are a seemingly inexhaustible source of non-recycled waste. 95% of the 51 million tons of packaging discarded by Americans in 2021 went straight to landfill.

Little is being done to persuade manufacturers, suppliers, and retailers to reduce packaging, but the Zero Waste grassroots movement is gaining traction in the war on packaging and single-use plastics and helping engaged citizens jettison them altogether.

Zero Waste started as a lifestyle movement on the West Coast of America but has since gone global with Zero Waste stores opening up in towns and cities across the world. These stores offer a novel retail experience as you have to bring your bottles and containers to fill up on goods you dispense from a bulk supply.

Zero Waste stores currently have a strong millennial appeal with stores offering self-serve quantities of pantry staples, cleaning products, toiletries, and beverages. Customers only pay for the weight of products they take, saving money on purchasing large standardized packages in conventional grocery stores.

Prefer shopping on the Internet? Check out our round-up review of the best online zero-waste stores.

5. Cut municipal solid waste by turning waste into energy

Waste is increasingly being viewed as a potential energy source and alternative to finite fossil fuel resources. A ton of MSW can contain as much as 550 kWh of energy that can be used to heat and power homes and businesses. The primary method of energy recovery from waste is incineration.

The United States has 75 facilities that combust waste for energy recovery. This waste processing strategy forms a key part of the long-term management of waste, decreasing the volume of MSW that heads to the landfill and transforming waste into a renewable energy source.

waste-to-energy plant
Waste-to-energy plant
Source: Wikimedia / Fletcher6

Confined and controlled burning of waste is considered a better option than landfill disposal and waste incineration facilities use a range of technologies to treat exhaust air so that pollutants are minimized. In urban environments or regions (Japan, Sweden) where landfill availability is limited, MSW combustion facilities are much more common.

6. Reuse human waste by converting it to biogas

An enterprising US wastewater company has transformed human waste into a valuable energy source that is fueling municipal vehicles, including garbage trucks. Since 2016, the Persigo Wastewater Treatment Plant of Colorado Grand Junction has been processing millions of gallons of the city’s human waste into a renewable natural gas (RNG) called biomethane.

The biogas is generated from sewage through the activity of anaerobic bacteria. These organisms feed on the waste, transforming it into methane-rich biogas that can fuel vehicles or generate electricity. The multimillion-dollar project pipes the generated RNG from the sewage treatment works to the city fleet’s fuelling station, where it is sold to the city at a profit.

Biogas projects like this are also underway in the United Kingdom, Australia, and Norway. Smaller-scale biogas setups using animals have been used in Southeast Asia and Africa for heating and cooking.

7. Cut down on discarded items via “reduce, re-use, recycle”

Tackling waste generation at the source requires a new approach to how products are manufactured and used. Mass-produced products which have a short life span and cannot be easily repaired end up in landfill and require new resources and energy for manufacturing replacements.

an illustration of linear vs circular economy concepts
Linear vs circular economy
Source: Wikimedia / Catherine Weetman

Governments are keen to encourage the adoption of a circular economy that promotes the 3 Rs of waste management – reuse, recycling, and refurbishment of items so that the production and disposal of items are greatly reduced. The promotion of a circular economy, where the longevity and repurposing of products and materials are maximized may also provide new jobs and business opportunities.

8. Reduce landfill environmental impact via sanitary landfill management

Municipal authorities are being encouraged to explore more innovative approaches to landfill use that are sanitary and minimize disturbance of the immediate environment. Sanitary landfills can be trench, area, or ramp landfills that are deliberately designed to maximize the compaction of waste and minimize leaching and gas emissions.

Sanitary landfills harness the consolidation, compaction, and decomposition of waste under pressure to minimize the amount of space used by the landfill. The volume of waste is reduced by adding layers of earth that minimize exposure of the landfill waste to air which accelerates degradation and release of harmful gasses.

Sanitary landfill sites are carefully selected with detailed soil, geological and hydrological assessments. A liner and drainage system prevents leachate from the landfill from penetrating the ground. Sanitary landfills are also smart, integrating Internet of Things technology to monitor leachate composition and gas emissions.

9. Mitigate solid waste generation by waste diversion

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is actively addressing the problem of the high volume of municipal solid waste by implementing waste diversion strategies. Waste (or landfill) diversion encompasses any techniques, policies, or technologies that divert waste generated by the Agency from landfills, including:

  • Source reduction (a reduction in the volume, mass, and toxicity or waste generated)
  • Compositing
  • Recycling
  • Reuse
  • Incineration

Once waste diversion strategies have been implemented, the success of the strategies is measured by landfill size, with the expectation that landfill size will not increase significantly, over the long term.

The EPA has had some success with waste diversion, with the waste diversion rate increasing from 47.3% in 2008 to over 70% by 2021. The EPA also found that waste diversion reduced the costs of waste disposal and eased pressure on existing landfills.

10. Eliminate discarded cigarette butts by recycling them instead

They are easy to overlook, but cigarettes are a common source of street litter that simply ends up in a landfill. The cellulose acetate fiber that makes the butts biodegrades slowly, taking up to a decade to completely break down. The wide dispersal of discarded cigarette butts leads to trillions of them polluting rivers, streams, and oceans each year.

Over the last 20 years, efforts have been made to encourage smokers to put used cigarette butts in dedicated bins, but they are not routinely recycled. However, specialist recycling companies like Terracycle have developed facilities that can recycle cigarette butts, with financial support from Tobacco companies.

Cigarette butt recycling involves a thorough cleaning of the butt’s cellulose acetate material, which is then melted and extruded into pellets. The pellets can be mixed with other plastics for manufacturing new products like gutters, pipes, plastic fencing, and window frames.

11. Turn newspaper waste into NewspaperWood

In 2013, Dutch designer Mieke Meijer developed a novel and unique material called NewspaperWood from recycled newspapers. NewspaperWood takes discarded newspapers and glues them into a laminated material that has the appearance and grain of natural wood when it is cut. NewspaperWood is also 100% recyclable when used and can be pulped to produce other paper.

This cleverly reverse-engineered material can be cut, sanded, and milled for use in projects that would use other types of wood. Though this material is not currently mass-produced, it makes a great upcycled addition to a range of interior design and construction projects including use as fire-resistant roof tiles.

12. Tackle pollution with plastic-eating bacteria

One of the big problems of MSW is the large proportion of plastic that simply does not degrade. However, a remarkable discovery by Japanese scientists of bacteria that can break down plastic could be a game-changer for tackling the world’s plastic problem. 

A special bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was discovered in sludge near a bottle recycling facility in Osaka. The bacteria were able to break down the chemical bonds in PET plastic, the type milk bottles are made from.

Though the rate of plastic breakdown by these bacteria is slow, scientists are studying this organism to see if its enzymes can be extracted and used on an industrial scale to digest the surplus waste plastic that easily pollutes the environment. This would require genetic engineering and may take many years to realize.

13. Use carbon engineering to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions from waste

Carbon dioxide (CO2) makes up just 0.03% of the atmosphere. This gas is essential to life because of its use by plants in photosynthesis to create food. However, in recent times there have been concerns that this dense gas may have an insulating effect that promotes global warming, leading to efforts to reduce the amount of CO2 that is generated by human activity.

Decomposing waste releases CO2 and other carbon-rich gases like methane as it is degraded by bacteria. Strategies that reduce this carbon release include the introduction of technology that can capture and fix atmospheric carbon for use as a novel energy source.

This nascent technology, known as carbon engineering sucks CO2 out of the air and sublimes it with water and other materials for long-term storage deep underground. So far, this carbon capture plan has not been realized, but it could offer mankind control over gas emissions in the future.

14. Clean up nuclear waste with fungal nuclear remediation

Nuclear waste is one of the most hazardous forms of waste and is capable of prolonged environmental contamination with serious implications for human and animal health. The dangers of radioactive waste mean that its disposal is difficult, with high transportation and storage costs.

Scientists have found a remarkable solution to cleaning radioactive waste in the form of mushroom species that can clean up this dangerous form of contamination. After the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011, mushrooms were planted to reduce the levels of radioactive contamination of the surrounding land.

The mushrooms hyper-accumulate radiation from the surrounding environment in their tissues. The resultant radioactive fungi can then be harvested and incinerated, with the radioactive ash carefully stored in much smaller quantities than other nuclear waste.

15. Cut down on discarded electronics via precious metal recovery

Electronic waste is a pressing waste problem as over 50 million tons of spent electronics are thrown in the trash worldwide every year. Less than 20% of the PCs, laptops, phones, and tablets that are discarded will be recycled. And the quantities are climbing, with levels of discarded electronics exceeding 74 million tons by the end of the decade.

Electronic waste is a big issue for several reasons. Not only is it often hazardous, requiring specialist disposal, but it also leads to the loss of large quantities of precious and rare earth metals that are simply discarded when a computer or phone reaches the end of its lifespan.

computer chip circuit board
Electronic waste is an underestimated source of precious metal recovery

A broken mobile phone may not look like it is carrying gold and silver, but these rare and unique metals are essential for the precision functioning of electronic and radio frequency connectors within devices.

Several companies are now paying attention to the vast quantities of precious metals that could be recovered from electronics. Canadian company Excir has partnered with England’s Royal Mint to recover gold, silver, and platinum from old electronic equipment using proprietary methods and technologies.

This clean tech company aims to recover gold and silver from circuit boards using methods that include chemical leaching, pulverization, and smelting.

These methods were also successfully used to recover gold, silver, and bronze for the medals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

In conclusion

It’s clear that there are many solutions that can impact the world’s waste problem. Over time, source reduction, waste diversion, inventive recovery, and repurposing of materials can gain traction in reducing solid waste levels. 

However, for lasting reductions in waste generation, significant changes in the nature and patterns of consumption may be necessary. While it is still profitable for businesses to use excessive packaging or to manufacture low-quality, short-lifespan goods that can’t be easily repaired, the landfills will continue to get larger. 

Poorer countries need to be supported in developing waste management and sanitation infrastructure that can reduce or eliminate the polluting effects of waste. Targeted investment in projects like waste incineration plants or recycling technology can improve quality of life for local populations and give their economies the momentum they need to grow.

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