Although the concept of waste disposal is as old as the first human community, it has increased in importance over the last several decades as people have become more environmentally aware. Today, there are numerous ways for communities to dispose of waste. Each has its own unique set of advantages and disadvantages, but all of them play a key role in maintaining the health of the environment and the people who live in it.
Here are seven of the most common methods of waste disposal:
Landfills, also called “sanitary landfills,” are the most common method of waste disposal. Because these locations house all types of refuse, they carry a number of risks, such as hazardous chemical runoff and odor emissions. To protect the surrounding ecosystem, waste disposal personnel construct landfills in a specific way.
First, workers typically establish landfills on top of natural clay soil or far below water tables to reduce the risk of environmental contamination. Then, they install a protective layer at the bottom of the landfill, upon which they place thin layers of waste. After they complete each layer, workers cover it with new soil to encourage the breakdown of materials and prevent runoff.
Communities that don’t have enough space to accommodate a landfill typically choose to incinerate their waste. During this process, workers place garbage inside of a very hot furnace. The extreme heat turns the waste into ash residue or other substances, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor.
Incineration remains one of the most effective methods of waste disposal because it is capable of dramatically reducing waste volume and producing usable energy. However, it also comes with a number of environmental risks. As waste materials burn, they can produce ash that enters the air and pollutes neighboring areas.
A type of thermal waste treatment, gasification involves the breakdown of organic materials by placing them within a high-temperature environment. There are several different types of gasification that waste management professionals use. The first, traditional gasification, combines high heat with low oxygen levels to break down organic materials without producing air pollutants.
Another common method is pyrolysis, which reduces waste at temperatures of more than 800 degrees Fahrenheit in an oxygen-free atmosphere. By creating an enormous amount of pressure, this process converts materials into gases and a carbon-based substance.
Some communities treat solid and liquid wastes with plasma gasification, a method that decomposes materials at the molecular level. By using specialized plasma torches, workers are able to heat waste to around 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When materials enter this “gasification zone,” they break down into a substance known as syngas, which can generate electricity.
The majority of materials that enter the waste stream are food items and yard trimmings, both of which are highly biodegradable. Instead of sending these organic materials to landfills, many individuals are opting to compost them.
Composting involves placing organic materials into designated pits or bins, where, with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria, these materials eventually break down into a soil-like substance that is rich in nutrients and environmentally friendly. Another common type of composting—known as vermi-composting—involves the use of worms to expedite the decomposition process and supplement the soil even further.
Composted materials are particularly useful to farmers because they provide a chemical-free means of fertilizing plants and improving the quality of soil. Other benefits of using compost include better soil temperature control and easier weed management.
Another way to dispose of waste is to dump it into the ocean. This method is popular in coastal communities because of the convenience involved. However, it can be an expensive practice, requiring large barges to move the waste more than 15 kilometers away from shore before dumping.
More importantly, ocean dumping is perhaps the most environmentally harmful of all waste disposal methods. An excess of trash can easily harm the delicate ecosystem of the ocean and its inhabitants and reduce the nutrients that typically exist in the water. In addition, dumping is a major source of ocean water desalination.
An increasingly popular form of waste management, recycling (sometimes called “material recovery”) involves reusing trash so that it does not cause harm to the environment. Individuals can recycle all manner of useful materials, such as plastic, glass, and metal.
Waste recycling has become easier than ever due to modern equipment that can quickly sort through items and recover those that are reusable. In addition, the majority of municipalities offer recycling services that remove materials directly from households in the community. These practices help contribute to green living by minimizing landfill use, saving natural resources, and drastically reducing pollutants.