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Humans have always created waste. Throughout history it has been left behind, dropped into streets, dumped in waterways, covered with dirt, composted, incinerated, and recycled. Advances have been made globally to confront the complex problems of waste generation, collection, disposal, and materials recovery, but finding a way to manage solid waste in order to preserve resources and minimize pollution is a continuing challenge.
Over the years and around the world, solid waste—garbage, trash, or rubbish—has been abundant, cumbersome, and often polluting. But many factors besides waste itself combine to produce a waste problem, including perception and the conditions under which people live. The greatest refuse management problems exist in cities. Waste also has social and cultural meaning; what societies retain and what they throw away says a great deal about them and the values they place on material goods.
Before the Industrial Revolution
Humans began abandoning the nomadic life around 10,000 BCE. Tribes that followed game left their wastes behind. In towns and cities such habits could not be tolerated by the citizenry, but methods of dealing effectively with refuse took time. In ancient Troy, food and human wastes were sometimes dropped on the floors of houses or dumped into the streets. When the stench became unbearable, people covered the droppings with a fresh supply of dirt or clay. In the streets, pigs, dogs, birds, and rodents ate the organic material. The debris accumulation in Troy amounted to about 1.5 meters per century, and as much as 4 meters per century in other cultures.
While the state of sanitation was appalling in many parts of the ancient world, there were some signs of progress. In Mohenjo Daro, founded in the Indus Valley about 2500 BCE, central planning led to the construction of built-in home rubbish chutes and to the institution of scavenger services. In Heracleopolis, founded in Egypt about 2100 BCE, wastes were collected in areas inhabited by the privileged but dumped primarily in the Nile River. About the same time, the homes of the Sea Kings in Crete had bathrooms connected to trunk sewers, and by 1500 BCE the island had land set aside for disposal of garbage.
Religion sometimes was important in enforcing sanitary practices. About 1600 BCE, Moses wrote a sanitary law code under which Jews were expected to bury their waste far from living quarters. The Talmud required that the streets of Jerusalem be washed daily despite the scarcity of water.
In the classical period, waste plagued even the high culture of Athens. About 500 BCE, Greeks organized the first municipal dumps in the Western world, and the Council of Athens began enforcing an ordinance requiring scavengers to dispose of wastes no less than 1.5 kilometers from the city walls. Athens also issued the first known edict against throwing garbage into the streets and established compost pits.
Ancient Mayans in the New World also placed their organic waste in dumps and used broken pottery and stones as fill. Records from second-century BCE China reveal “sanitary police” who were charged with removing animal and human carcasses and “traffic police” responsible for street sweeping.
Because of its size and dense population, Rome faced sanitation problems unheard of elsewhere. While garbage collection and disposal were well organized by the standards of the day, they did not meet the city’s needs. General collection was restricted to state-sponsored events, and property owners were responsible for cleaning the abutting streets—although the laws were not always enforced. Wealthy Romans used slaves to dispose of their wastes, and some independent scavengers gathered garbage and excreta for a fee and sold the material as fertilizer. When Rome’s power waned, the quality of the city’s environment deteriorated.
As Western Europe deurbanized in the Middle Ages—due in great degree to widespread plagues—people were spared the massive waste problems experienced by densely populated cities. Despite the crudity of medieval dwellings and living conditions, the eventual rise of new cities was accompanied by greater attention to health practices. Cities began paving and cleaning streets at the end of the twelfth century.
The migration of rural peoples to urban places also meant the migration of hogs, geese, ducks, and horses into the cities. In 1131 a law was passed prohibiting swine from running loose in Paris after young King Philip was killed in a riding accident caused by an unattended pig. But animals continued to roam the streets as scavengers. In the great Islamic cities and in China, however, public areas were better maintained than in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Industrial Age Waste Problems
With the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1760s, urban sanitation took a turn for the worse, first in England then on the European continent. The inability to house the growing population migrating to the industrial centers led to serious overcrowding and health problems. As late as 1843, a major section of Manchester had only one toilet for every 212 people.
English cities, however, were the first to establish city services to confront the problems. (Some research suggests that Vienna established a refuse collection system that was one of the earliest on record in the eighteenth century.) While it is easy to exaggerate the range and quality of services provided, the largest industrial cities in England and elsewhere had rudimentary public works and public health agencies by the early nineteenth century.
The rise of public health science was crucial. Cholera epidemics ravaged England in the early nineteenth century, and in the late 1820s many people accepted chronic dysentery and other endemic diseases as normal. The 1842 Poor Law Commission’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, authored by Edwin Chadwick, came to the conclusion that communicable disease was related to filthy environmental conditions. The fi lth—or miasmatic—theory of disease was the most significant force for promoting environmental sanitation until the twentieth century, when the germ theory identified bacteria as the culprit in spreading communicable diseases.
While Europe was in the throes of its Industrial Revolution, the United States was just emerging as a nation. Many of the European lessons about sanitation, therefore, were not applied immediately. Early America was highly decentralized, and the smaller towns and cities did not face the enormous waste problems of London or Paris. Yet habits of neglect affected these communities too. Casting rubbish and garbage into the streets was done casually and regularly, despite the fact that crude sanitary regulations were common by the late seventeenth century in major towns. In 1634 Boston officials prohibited residents from throwing fish or garbage near the common landing. In 1657 the burghers of New Amsterdam passed laws against casting waste into streets.
By and large, sanitation in preindustrial America was determined by local circumstances. Some city leaders placed a high priority on city cleanliness, applying the principles of environmental sanitation. Others simply ignored the problem. Individuals or private scavengers usually collected refuse. Boards of health were slow in developing, understaffed, and limited in power. It was not until 1866 that New York City became the first American city to establish a systematic public health code.
The solid waste problem became a serious issue in American cities during the Industrial Revolution. Crowded cities produced mounds of garbage. Coal mines left hills of slag. Pigs or turkeys still roamed the streets and alleys in some towns looking for scraps; horses dumped tons of manure into thoroughfares; and rivers, lakes, and the oceans became sinks for tons of urban discards.
Boston authorities estimated that in 1890 scavenging teams collected approximately 350,000 loads of garbage, ashes, rubbish, and street sweepings. In Chicago 225 street teams gathered approximately 1,500 cubic meters of refuse daily. In Manhattan in 1900, scavengers collected an average of 555 tonnes of garbage daily. Because of seasonal variations in available fruits and vegetables, that amount increased to about 1,000 tonnes daily in July and August. One hundred years later, the United States produces more than 226 million tonnes of municipal solid waste each year, and possibly as much as 350 million tonnes per year. This represents almost 2 kilograms per person per day.
The Worldwide Waste Stream
Unfortunately, the United States is a leader in many categories associated with municipal solid waste generation, although the waste problem is not restricted to the United States. While the composition of solid waste varies considerably throughout Europe, organic material and paper dominate the waste stream. These two categories account for between 50 and 80 percent of residential waste materials. Glass, plastics, and metals make up as little as 10 percent to as much as 25 percent. In Eastern Europe, organic materials are more plentiful than glass, plastics, and metals. Overall figures suggest substantially less use of packaging material in Europe as a whole, for example, than in the United States.
Affluence is a strong dictator of waste volume and variety. For example, in higher-income economies in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, abandoned cars, furniture, and packaging are openly discarded. In Asia, paper and plastics waste are generally greatest in Tokyo and Singapore, while very low in Beijing and Shanghai (due in part to recovery and recycling). On the Indian subcontinent, organic and inert matter dominates waste disposal, and per capita per day disposal rarely exceeds 0.8 kilograms. The same is true for African cities, where waste is high in organic material and also rarely exceeds 0.8 kilograms. Waste in Latin America generally is high in organic material, but can average 1 kilogram per day.
While the discards of nineteenth-century America were largely food wastes, wood and coal ash, rubbish, and horse manure, the current waste stream includes a complex mix of hard-to-replace and recyclable materials, as well as a variety of toxic substances to a much greater extent than anywhere else in the world. Of all current discards, paper, plastics, and aluminum have increased the most. Paper makes up about 38 percent of the U.S. waste stream; plastics, 11 percent; metals and glass, 19 percent; and yard waste, 12 percent. Solid waste collection and disposal place great strain on local economies, particularly when revenue streams constrict, government priorities change due to political shifts, and support from other governmental entities are diverted elsewhere. There is an informal dimension to the solid waste economy, however, that rarely fi nds its way to the balance sheet. In countries with thousands of low-income and middle-income people, solid waste often is a major source of income—collected, sorted, and resold by those who turn the discards of the more affluent into a livelihood.
Waste Management: Public and Private
The way solid waste is managed—or mismanaged—is crucial to the success of collection and disposal practices. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, a major concern of city government in the United States was to determine responsibility for delivering needed services such as refuse collection and disposal. For many years, the question was whether public or private service was better. Between the 1890s and the 1960s, publicly managed systems dominated. In the early twenty-first century, the United States has a mixed system of service providers in the solid waste field, with the trend toward increased privatization. Whatever the system, local governments in North America in general retain primary responsibility for managing or overseeing solid waste management. In Canada the approach favors more decentralization than in the United States.
The recent interest in “integrated waste management” systems, that is, systems that will use some or all disposal options, requires cooperation between public and private parties. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency’s promotion of integrated waste management also suggests a significant role for the federal government in setting a national agenda for solid waste, as well as having an expanded regulatory function.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. federal government has played a greater role in addressing the waste problem, underscoring its significance as an environmental issue with national repercussions. The 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act was the first major federal law to recognize solid waste as a national problem. Since that time new laws have been added, shifting attention among issues of recycling, resource recovery, conversion of waste to energy, hazardous wastes, and more traditional concerns over municipal solid wastes.
While the United States seeks to implement an integrated solid waste management system, Western Europe leads the world in such an endeavor. Governments in all western European countries are required to design their systems around integrated models with waste prevention at the core. While the public sector has been at the center of these programs for years, private companies increasingly carry out waste management services. Even in Eastern Europe where state-run programs have been the norm, private companies are making headway. In many countries, legislation to improve solid waste management at the highest levels is insufficient, and private sector initiatives increasingly compete with governments to carry out of waste services.
Especially since the 1960s and 1970s, privatization of solid waste collection and disposal proved to be an alternative to municipal service—a form of outsourcing often seen as a way for cities to get out from under an onerous service obligation. While private collection and disposal always has been part of the service mix throughout the world, a relatively new dimension is the development of solid waste conglomerates often with international reach. In the United States, for example, consolidation accounted for much of the industry’s growth in the 1990s with some companies becoming international businesses.
Collection of solid wastes has been made difficult throughout the world by the growing volumes and kinds of materials discarded, the larger populations to be served, and the greater distances that sanitation workers are required to cover. There is no “best” method of collection. Before 1900, some American cities chose to collect unseparated discards, and others experimented with source separation. Historically, collections were most frequent in the business districts, less frequent in outlying areas or poorer neighborhoods. As more affluent suburbs grew, cities diverted collection teams from inner-city routes to upper- and middle-class neighborhoods.
After World War II, technical advances helped to ease the problems of collection, especially in the United States and Europe, with the introduction of compaction vehicles and transfer stations (used as central drop-off points for collected refuse). But over the years collection remained heavily dependent on hand labor in many parts of the world. No matter the method, collection is difficult because it is costly and does not serve every citizen equally well, especially the poor. Surveys estimate that from 70 to 90 percent of the cost of solid waste service in the United States goes for collection. Equally high or higher collection ratios can be found in other areas such as Africa.
Collection of wastes is an imposing task throughout the world. In some cities, such as Kathmandu, Nepal, there is no formal waste collection service of any kind. In Mexico City, the national government controls collection and disposal arrangements, and does not allow private contractors to operate. Throughout Latin America collection coverage is reasonably good in the large cities such as Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, Santiago, and Havana, although it is uncertain whether squatter settlements receive adequate collection service. Privatizing collection operations, which became more popular in the United States in the 1960s, also has caught on in several large cities in Latin America.
Conditions in Europe vary greatly. In western Europe and Scandinavia collection is frequent and highly mechanized; in eastern Europe, where much of the housing is multifamily apartments, quality of service is uneven. Like Europe, industrialized countries of Asia—Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore—have waste collection in their cities that is mechanized and capital intensive. In developing countries much of collection is done by hand labor, with the exception of some large cities that maintain motorized collection fleets. In the poorest countries, collection rates may not exceed 50 percent and may not extend to the poor.
Privatization also is gaining a foothold in some countries. Most interestingly in east Asia and the Pacific, women often manage garbage in the household, pay for collection service, separate recyclables, and sell items to private waste collectors. In south and west Asia, for example, labor unrest and civil disturbances have affected municipal service periodically. In much of Africa the municipality, through a combination of motorized vehicles, animal-drawn carts, and human-drawn wheelbarrows and pushcarts, carries out collection. As in many developing regions, transfer stations are uncommon and collection reliability is often low.
Disposal Options: Landfills and Incinerators
Modern sanitary landfills evolved from those originating in Great Britain in the 1920s, and American attempts in the 1930s in New York City, San Francisco, and especially Fresno, California. The sanitary landfill is composed of systematically dug trenches, where layers of solid waste alternate with layers of dirt. The trenches are then covered with a layer of dirt so that odors could not escape and rodents and other vermin could not enter. Newer landfills utilize plastic liners to retard leaching and monitoring devices to detect methane emissions and various other pollutants.
Through the 1950s and 1960s engineers and waste managers believed that the sanitary landfill was the most economical and safest form of disposal. By the 1970s, experts began to doubt that landfills could serve the future needs of cities, not only because of the paucity of land but also because of citizen resistance and increasingly rigid environmental standards. The NIMBY syndrome—Not in My Back Yard—spread across the country as some neighborhoods refused to act as dumping grounds for the whole community. Many times sanitary landfills did not live up to their name, becoming a haven for insects and rodents, threatening groundwater, producing methane gas linked to ozone depletion, and containing various hazardous materials. In some cases, the placing of dumps in minority neighborhoods was and is challenged as a form of environmental racism. In the 1980s, the siting of hazardous or potentially hazardous waste facilities in the neighborhoods of people of color helped to inspire a form of “ecopopulism” in American cities under the rubric of the “environmental justice movement.” At first, such efforts at confronting social and environmental injustice with strong racial and class overtones remained in an American context, but in time similar concerns over intentional placements of unwanted facilities grew beyond “NIMBYism” elsewhere to articulate similar concerns.
By recent estimates, 55 to 70 percent of the waste generated in North America ends up in landfills. But the total number of sites in the United States particularly declined through the late 1980s and 1990s substantially, from approximately 8,000 in 1988 to 2,300 in 1999. The major reason for the decline, in addition to siting problems, is Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976), which set and enforced rigorous national standards for municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills in the 1990s. In essence, newer, larger, but fewer landfills could meet the new standards, while smaller and older ones simply stopped operating.
The lack of sites in the United States, especially in the East and parts of the Midwest, forced several states to export their garbage. New York is the top exporter with 5.0 million tonnes per year, followed by New Jersey and Missouri (1.6 million tonnes) and Maryland (1.4 million tonnes). The major importer of waste is Pennsylvania with 9.0 million tons per year followed at some distance by Virginia (3.5 million tonnes) and Michigan (2.8 million tonnes).
There is a clear split between northern and southern/ eastern Europe in the use of landfills. In some northern European countries landfill practices parallel current U.S. experience with approximately half of the waste finding its way to landfills. In Greece, Spain, Hungary, and Poland, virtually all collected waste goes into the ground. Many of the landfills in Europe are of the small, uncontrolled municipal type, but efforts are being made to shift toward larger regional types. Unlike the U.S., NIMBYism is unlikely to influence the siting of landfills.
Landfilling has been the cheapest and most typical form of disposal in east Asia and the Pacific. But in countries such as Australia, Japan, and Singapore, costs have risen sharply in recent years. In developing countries, open dumping rather than sanitary landfilling has dominated disposal practices. The same is true in south and west Asia and in much of Africa. Egypt and South Africa tried to upgrade landfills, but this objective has yet to achieve success. Waste pickers—sometimes operating under municipal authority or on their own—work the open dumps to find materials to utilize or sell. Ocean dumping is still common in these regions as well, although the practice is banned or restricted in most places.
The use of landfills—many of them private—in Latin America and the Caribbean is on the rise, especially in large cities. These sites, however, more closely resemble controlled dumps than sanitary landfills. In Mexico, for example, there are nearly one hundred controlled disposal sites, but only about 10 percent (mostly in the north) can be considered sanitary landfills. Waste pickers also are common in Latin America, and while attempts have been made to prevent them from entering the dumps, such efforts normally fail.
Of the available alternatives, incineration has had the strongest following. The first systematic incineration of refuse at the municipal level was tested in Nottingham, England, in 1874. Two years later in Manchester, Alfred Fryer built an improved “destructor,” and subsequently the British led in the technology’s development for several decades. The British were the first to attempt to convert the heat from burning waste into steam to produce electricity. The first American “cremators” were built in 1885.
Two types of combustion facilities—both with roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—were developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The first is a mass burn unit used to reduce the total volume of waste; the second is the waste-to-energy facility, pioneered by the British, meant to produce steam to generate electricity or to be sold directly to customers as a heating source. Waste-to-energy became popular in the United States in the 1970s in the wake of the energy crisis, but it did not gain widespread support, nor did incineration in general.
Despite the fact that incineration drastically reduces the volume of waste, the cost of the technology and chronic problems with air pollution made it a weak competitor in contests with the sanitary landfill. In the 1990s, however, incineration rebounded, especially built on the hope of an improved competitive edge because of rising landfill fees and the promise of cleaner energy production. In 1996, 110 combustors with energy recovery were in operation in the United States with a capacity to burn up to approximately 90,000 tonnes of MSW per day; the number is much lower in Canada. Overall, waste-to-energy incineration handles approximately 10–15 percent of the solid waste stream in North America.
Incineration also has a checkered history internationally. In Africa any kind of burning and waste-to-energy— except medical waste incineration—are little used because of high costs. The same is true in Latin America. In Asia, only cities in the most industrialized countries use modern incinerator technology. Japan leads the way; Tokyo has thirteen incinerators. The increasing lack of landfill space and the dense population has put Japan on the forefront of incineration use and development. In developing countries, many problems have arisen with imported incinerators. Some units do not operate at high enough temperatures to destroy pathogens and the high moisture content in the waste, and they contribute substantial air pollution.
Europe’s commitment to incineration since the early successes in England has been mixed. Northern European countries, particularly Sweden, rely heavily on mass-burn incineration in association with energy generation. In Western Europe anywhere from 35 to 80 percent of residential waste is incinerated. The lack of landfill space and energy needs have been powerful forces in promoting the burning of waste, but not without controversy. Emissions of acid gases, heavy metals, dioxin, and mercury have caused serious concern, and have led the European Union to enforce stringent emissions standards for incinerators. Older incinerators that do not generate energy are being phased out.
European countries have been active in producing by-products from incineration residue, using fl y ash, for example, in a variety of road products. Europeans also have led the way in developing refuse-derived fuels. The experiences in Eastern Europe have been less successful, especially because of the older incineration facilities in use and the inability to upgrade or replace them.
Recycling and Recovery
Only in the last several years has recycling emerged as an alternative disposal strategy to landfilling and incineration, particularly in the United States. Once regarded as a grassroots method of source reduction and a protest against over consumption in a “throwaway society,” recycling arose in the 1980s as a disposal method in its own right. In 1988 about 1,000 communities in the United States had curbside collection service; in 2000 the number exceeded 7,000. The province of Ontario initiated its first curbside program in 1983, and by 1987 at least forty-one communities had such programs in Canada. The EPA estimated that recycling and composting diverted 52 million tonnes of material away from landfills and incinerators in the United States in 1996 (up from 31 million tonnes in 1990), with the most typical recyclables being aluminum cans, batteries, paper and paperboard, and yard trimmings.
A major goal of many communities and the United States in general is to increase the recycling rate, which stood at 10 percent in the late 1980s. The EPA’s 1988 draft report on solid waste called for a national recycling goal of 25 percent by 1992. In the late 1990s, the EPA raised the goal to at least 35 percent of MSW by 2005, and called for reducing the generation of solid waste to about 2 kilograms per capita per day. The actual rate of recycling in the late 1990s was about 20 to 25 percent in North America.
The U.S. experience with recycling, while vastly changed from years past, falls short of recycling and recovery efforts in other parts of the industrialized world. Germany and Denmark, in particular, have aggressive recycling policies. Denmark, for example, recycles about 65 percent of its waste. One of the most unique aspects of recovery of materials in Western Europe is the pervasive idea of “producer responsibility” for proper disposal of packaging and other products. Recycling and recovery in southern and eastern Europe and in other parts of the world is more uneven. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, materials recovery is extensive with recycling programs in all large cities and most moderate-sized communities. In smaller towns and rural areas, where much of the waste is organic, composting is the only form of recovery in use. Centralized composting has not been successful in Latin America as a rule, however. By contrast, backyard composting is more widespread in Australia, Japan, and New Zealand. In Asia a large portion of household organic waste is fed to animals. The large composting plants that were so prevalent throughout developing countries in Asia—including those pioneered in India—are out of use and not working at full capacity.
In east Asia and the Pacific, formal and informal source separation and recycling programs are practiced. The highest degree of waste reduction takes place in the thriving urban areas of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. There also are waste recovery programs and recycling efforts sponsored by cities and national ministries in the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam.
Informal waste picking is widespread throughout the world, particularly in developing countries. In several locations, such as in south and west Asia and Africa, there are informal networks of pickers, buyers, traders, and recyclers in place of formal public systems or private companies. Materials recovery takes on a different form in the developing world as opposed to highly industrialized regions. For the former, materials recovery becomes a necessity in areas of poorly paid or unemployed people and in areas where resources are scarce. In industrialized areas, materials recovery is an attempt to lessen the wastefulness of growing economies and reduce environmental costs.
The waste problem is a part of life—ancient and modern. Strides have been made throughout the world to confront the complex problems of waste generation, collection, disposal, and materials recovery. Finding a way to manage solid waste in order to preserve resources and minimize pollution is a constant challenge.
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