Whether at home, out dining or shopping, or at work, people around the world generate waste every day. Both hazardous and non-hazardous items constantly enter the waste stream, posing unique challenges to those whose responsibility it is to dispose of them safely. In order to understand how to properly handle and dispose of the waste that we produce, it’s important to first recognize the various kinds that exist.
Sometimes referred to as solid waste, municipal waste consists of waste from homes, schools, stores, offices, and other residential and commercial buildings. Any type of non-liquid waste falls into this category. There are many different components of municipal waste, each with its own decomposition time span. For example, paper materials typically take up to 30 days to decompose, whereas plastic materials such as bottles can take 450 years to break down. Glass bottles have the longest decomposition period of all municipal waste materials, requiring around one million years to fully decompose. In general, cities dispose of this type of waste by sending it to landfills.
Food waste accounts for the vast majority of all municipal waste. In the United States alone, around 40 percent of food ends up in the trash. In a 2012 report, the Natural Resources Defense Council found that this accounts for $165 billion in food waste every single year. This food not only takes up large amounts of space in U.S. landfills, but it also acts as a major contributor to the country’s methane emissions. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas that’s 20 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
Food waste is a type of organic waste, which also encompasses things like lawn trimmings and clippings from the garden—anything that was once alive. Food waste includes leftovers from meals, fruit and vegetable scraps, egg shells, coffee grounds, and the remains of anything else we eat at home or in a restaurant.
Any substance that can be dangerous to the health of people or the environment receives the designation of hazardous waste. These materials can come in many forms, each of which poses a different kind of threat. Hazardous waste can be generated by industrial and manufacturing processes, but it can also be found in the home. So-called “household hazardous waste” includes common products like paints, car oil, drain cleaners, and batteries.
While some hazardous waste can poison humans and animals, other types run the risk of exploding or reacting badly with other compounds. All hazardous waste requires a special form of handling and disposal to minimize its threat.
Healthcare facilities produce a wide range of special waste that can both pollute the environment and harm humans and animals. One form of medical waste, for example, is out-of-date medications and other controlled substances. In the United States, more regulatory agencies are beginning to focus on the proper disposal of these potentially hazardous materials.
Another common type of medical waste comes from hospitals, in the form of used needles, bandages, fabrics soiled with bodily fluids, and medical cultures. A large portion of hospital waste may contain infectious bacteria or viruses, which makes proper disposal a requirement.
Construction and demolition waste
Sometimes included as part of general municipal waste, construction and demolition (C&D) waste is generated by all kinds of building development and renovation projects. The most common waste materials found on construction sites include carpeting, wood, and concrete. In the United States, many developers recycle their C&D waste and receive LEED Certification credits in return. The waste typically undergoes sorting and the reusable materials are removed prior to disposal in a landfill.
Perhaps the most potentially harmful type of waste is the used nuclear fuel left over from nuclear power plants and reactors. While inside the reactor, the uranium in the fuel breaks down into radioactive isotopes of certain metals. This nuclear waste (also called “radwaste”) remains in a dangerous state of radioactivity for years—sometimes thousands of years.
However, radwaste is unique from all other types of waste in that its hazardousness decreases over time. Eventually, all nuclear waste becomes non-radioactive. It is important to note that the length of time that it takes to lose its radioactivity depends on the type of waste. High-level waste, which is 95 percent radioactive materials, will take longer to become non-radioactive than low-level waste, which is only 1 percent radioactive.
There are many ways that humans can dispose of nuclear waste. During the first several years, the waste remains underwater, so that the radiation can decrease to safer levels. After this, power plants can sometimes recycle radwaste for further use, but it often goes into concrete or underground storage in a secure location.
Though many items end up in the waste stream, many of them can be recycled so that they can be reused in the future. This not only minimizes the consumption of raw materials, but it also prevents usable items from taking up space in landfills. People can typically recycle paper, glass, aluminum cans, plastics, and metal goods in their local communities. According to a study by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, 43% of Americans have access to both a curbside recycling program and a local drop-off facility; 30% have curbside collection only; and 21% have drop-off programs only.
Composting is another form of recycling that allows individuals to divert biodegradable materials from the landfill. Fruit and vegetable scraps, along with yard trimmings, break down over time, creating rich compost that can be used to fertilize a garden.