Waste Management


Waste management is the collection, transport, disposal, and recycling of material waste and other waste products generated by humans and human activity. A waste management system oversees and controls the process of collection, disposal, and recycling of refuse and waste from businesses and residences within a given nation, state, or municipality. Waste management programs address all aspects of waste collection to ensure that the management of waste protects human health and the environment; it involves the monitoring of waste of all kinds and determines the best methods to employ to manage waste in a given area based on the population size and the types of waste generated. Waste management is a solution provided to avoid problems; waste is not a problem in and of itself although it can present challenges.

Municipal waste is the main type of waste for which data are available; it involves waste produced by households and businesses, but not for industrial and agricultural waste, medical waste, hazardous waste, and sewage sludge.


Waste is collected to protect the environment and the public from potential harm through the various effects of decomposing material waste. Uncollected trash and waste can pollute the air, water, and soil. Rotting garbage, for example, produces harmful gases in the air such as methane that can result in breathing problems for individuals who are susceptible. Methane and other gases also contribute to the greenhouse effect and accelerate climate change. The most sophisticated waste management systems in the world are focused on reducing climate-relevant emissions. Although plastic materials do not decompose, they do break into pieces over time, producing gases such as methane and dioxins that are harmful to humans and animals. Raw sewage cannot be allowed to collect in soil or water and must be treated to avoid contamination with disease-causing organisms present in feces. Landfill sites that are not well managed attract rodents and other wild animals that carry viruses and can spread disease. Without waste management services, serious environmental and population-based health problems may develop.


Belvedere Energy from Waste Incinerator.

Belvedere Energy from Waste Incinerator.
(DP Landscapes / Alamy Stock Photo)


Global waste management has so many different destinations for waste disposal that data collection is difficult and amounts of waste cannot be determined accurately. Nevertheless, using statistics available in 2016 from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), about 254 million tons of waste are produced by Americans each year. The United States is the leading producer of municipal waste among other countries with high waste production, including China with about 220 million tons of municipal waste; Russia with 207 million tons; Japan with 52 million tons; Germany with 49 million tons; the United Kingdom with 35 million tons; and Mexico and France with about 32 million tons each. In China and the United States, producing the most waste might appear to be a factor of having large populations, but the U.S. population is only one-fourth the size of China's and the amount of garbage produced is nearly equal and increasing. One individual in the United States is estimated to produce about a ton of garbage a year and each citizen in the European Union produces slightly less. However, the United States and Europe have effective waste management systems at all levels—national, state, and local—and therefore contribute the least to polluting air, soil, and water. China is making an effort, especially in the large cities but is lagging behind as city officials struggle to manage the problem of waste accumulation. India and Indonesia, by contrast, have a lower rate of waste production even with large populations but have no waste management systems other than unregulated dumping. The Environment and Forestry Ministry in Jakarta, Indonesia, reported that 260,000 tons of garbage were dumped in landfills in 2016 and 14% was plastic, particularly plastic bags. A new bring-your-own-bag policy is being introduced in Indonesia's major cities to reduce plastic trash nationwide.


The interaction between human activities and the environment is complex and involves environmental protection, social wellbeing, economic growth, and technological development. Sustainable waste management is part of the interaction equation and, if successful, helps to ensure a balance between a healthy environment and the waste products of land use, business growth, and human activity. The generation of municipal waste begins with people engaged in the process of living and the maintenance of living and working spaces. Wherever human activity is carried on, including homes, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, and businesses of all kinds, waste materials are produced that must be managed. However, municipal waste accounts for only 10% of the total global waste, even though it requires a disproportionate percentage of waste management time and resources. Large scale waste management programs, in the broadest sense, must also plan for the disposal of industrial waste, agricultural waste, medical waste, hazardous radioactive waste, and sewage.

Throwing things away when they have served their usefulness and are no longer needed or wanted wastes money and resources—even the raw materials and energy used to make the items in the first place. Reducing waste not only means less environmental impact, it means that fewer resources and less energy are wasted, achieving a certain measure of sustainability. The Zero Waste approach, as described in a book by Bea Johnson, is a process of getting as close to the elimination of all household waste as possible, every piece of trash. It requires evaluating the household waste stream and addressing even the smallest items in terms of disposal versus substituting something reusable. The household products industry knows how to capitalize on the convenience of disposable—those products such as covers for mops or plastic sandwich bags that are used once and thrown away. Such items must be replaced in the home over and over again, which creates a steady stream of revenue for the manufacturers and, at the same time, an ongoing expense for the homeowner and increased waste material to be carried to the curb or to the landfill.

The classification of household and institutional waste to be managed includes ten major categories, as follows:

Modern societies tend to produce commodities, consume them, and trust that when they are finally discarded the waste product will be handled properly within the existing waste management system, whether guided by country, state, or local programs. However, not all countries have waste management systems and all of the waste generated by human activities is then a source of unwanted pollution.

Waste management methods—the way that materials are disposed of, stored, destroyed, or recycled—must be determined for any given city, town, state, province, or country based on the population size and the amounts and types of waste generated. Advances in both solid and hazardous waste management include the ongoing development of analytical tools and procedures designed to reduce major sources of pollution from industrial waste management such as large quantities of harmful gases released into the air from coal combustion or the leaching of toxic heavy metals into ground water. In the United States, municipal solid waste management must comply with policies of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at the federal level as well as with state laws and city or municipal ordinances controlling waste disposal methods. The basic solid waste management system consists of waste collection from homes and businesses, distribution to materials recovery facilities, separation of recyclable waste from solid waste that must be stored and destroyed by some means, and control of the effects of waste storage and destruction. Various means of waste disposal each have their advantages and disadvantages, as follows:

Household waste management

Household waste includes a range of organic (food, wood, paper, plastics, textiles, rubber, and leather) and inorganic materials (glass and metals) depending upon the income and lifestyle of the household members and the commercial and industrial characteristics of the area in which they live. The number of individuals in a household will also influence the amount of waste and its particular composition. More food waste and less paper waste may be generated in summer months, for example. Households are encouraged to avoid buying products that cannot be recycled and to recycle those that are accepted. Composting kitchen garbage is also encouraged, and some municipalities provide composting containers without charge or offer discounts on composting equipment. Composting at the household level lets the producer of waste also be the end-user of the rich soil that becomes the end-product. The combination of composting and recycling, if practiced regularly, is enough to significantly reduce the amount of household waste going into material recovery facilities.

Plastics last forever and are a major component of waste produced by households; some communities require households to purchase special containers for garbage disposal provided by the municipality, and even special city-wide plastic bags of a uniform color that must be used if the trash is picked up by city trucks. No other bags placed at the curb will be picked up. Although it seems harsh, this practice has been shown to reduce waste because individual households wish to avoid the costs associated with household waste management. The system reduces costs for both homeowners and municipalities.

Community waste management

In household waste management, the greater the number of household members, the less waste produced per capital. In communities, however, the larger the community the more garbage is generated per capita. The composition of the waste is almost the same as at the household level plus the waste from business and industry, sometimes including more metal and chemical waste products, electronic/electrical equipment and parts, batteries, pressurized containers, and more building and construction materials. Hazardous materials are not included as municipal waste and are treated differently based on EPA regulations.

Municipal waste management systems are carried out based on the income level and commercial and industrial interests of the community. Key solutions in community waste management are source reduction, collection, recycling, composting, incineration, and some aspect of dumping and landfills, depending on local waste management ordinances. Most municipalities in the United States have dual waste collection systems, picking up pre-sorted waste (paper separated from glass, plastic, and metal) from community households for recycling at the same time as material for incineration or landfill dumping is picked up. Single-stream recycling is used by some municipalities, picking up all types of recyclable material in a single truck and sorting it later at the material recovery facility, and organic waste is picked up separately.

Waste can be categorized as biodegradable and nonbiodegradable, which immediately reduces by half the amount of waste going to recycling versus that going to incineration or landfill operations. Organic waste collected in synthetic polymer bags precludes their utilization subsequently because oil-based plastics resist microorganism activity and do not break down. Most plastics also do not allow enzyme activity. Therefore, the ideal system would use collection materials that biodegrade in the composting environment of landfills. Research is ongoing to develop biodegradable or photodegradable plastics for waste collection. In the meantime, three types of compostable bags are available, including 100% degradable BioBags made from cornstarch, BIO-D Plast, or other bags labeled as compostable. Communities can educate consumers and find ways to encourage the use of compostable bags for the disposal of food and other compostable waste.

Control procedures


In the summer of 2008, a waste management crisis occurred in the city of Naples, Italy, that had been brewing for two decades due to the lack of reliable waste collection in the city. Municipal waste was being dumped illegally and regularly into landfills that were rapidly becoming overfilled. The waste was not only from households in Naples and the Campania region, it was also from industry and from other regions in Italy. The crisis erupted when municipal workers refused to pick up and distribute any more waste material. The waste began to accumulate on the streets of Naples until it was estimated to be over 200,000 tons. As the waste piles grew, so did the health risks to the population and the problem of foul-smelling streets in a city noted for tourism.

The mayor of Naples at the time was noted for failing to address the city's waste problem and had been criticized by the media and held responsible for the waste management crisis. By the summer of 2008, newspapers and politicians were pointing fingers at a Campania-based mafia organization that had been enjoying profits from removing municipal solid waste from homes and industrial waste such as heavy metals and chemicals and unloading them, not in public landfills, but in unfarmed fields and along back roads, leading to pollution of soil, air, and ground water.

The first corrective action was taken by the newly elected prime minister Silvio Berlusconi who held his first press conference in Naples amid protests from the city government and residents. The result was swift and effective. Berlusconi opened new landfill sites and called for construction of an incinerator. While those initiatives were in process locally, 700 tons of garbage a day were being carried to incinerators in Germany. The waste commissioner of Naples was transferred to Rome, where new and different problems awaited. By September 2008, the streets of Naples were clean and a new mayor of Naples was faced with the waste management issues. Uncontrolled dumping was still a concern and some areas of the city also had problems with uncollected garbage and the unfulfilled promise of a city incinerator. The new mayor developed a plan of differentiated waste collection that included recycling and contracted with a Dutch shipping company to carry Naples' waste by sea to an incinerator in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. By 2012, uncollected garbage in Naples was reduced to zero.

To enforce the RCRA, the EPA conducts compliance monitoring by inspecting waste facilities and investigating breaches. Cleanup is enforced in order to protect human health and the environment by making those responsible for a hazardous waste site clean up the site themselves or reimburse the EPA for cleanup by independent cleanup authorities. When solid or hazardous waste is not properly managed and contamination is found, the EPA and the state in which it occurred will usually oversee the cleanup. An important part of the EPA hazardous waste cleanup programs is to encourage and guide the sustainable reuse of previously contaminated property.

Public health role and response

The goal of all waste management is to protect public health and the environment, and both national and state laws govern the waste management process. However, many widely used modern waste management systems are still not entirely acceptable to public health officials. This is partly because of a general lack of trust for waste management, which changed drastically in the twentieth century after World War II. The plastics industry was developing rapidly and creating new plastic objects, and the oil industry quickly filled factories with tools suitable for mass production of single-use plastic commodities. This was the beginning of the throwaway mindset that placed convenience and consumables over sustainability. It also increased the scope of waste management, which could no longer leave the disposal of waste to household control.

Effects on public health Efforts and solutions

A 2015 conference of the Global Waste Management Outlook (GWMO) held jointly by the United Nations Environment Program and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA) reported that two billion people in the world have no access to primary waste collection, and three billion people do not have safe waste disposal services. The composition and amounts of waste generated by the world population is significantly more complex than that of the mid-nineteenth century when only inedible food, rags, and unburnable ash and cinders from coal burning made up the disposable waste. Risks to public health are correspondingly greater. Unsound waste management practices in low-income countries without waste management systems, controls, and recycling programs consist of littering or dumping in nearby environments such as waterways, backyards, streets, and empty fields with open fires burning continuously. Potentially toxic elements, volatile organic compounds, and bioaccumulative organic pollutants, and disease-causing organisms or vectors threaten the public with exposure through inhalants, food ingestion, and skin contact. Dumpsites are considered a global emergency, and organizations such as WHO and the ISWA have called for international bodies to develop a plan for ending such hazardous practices and replacing them with controlled waste management.

Nonprofit corporations in the private sector also help to further the cause of sustainable waste management. For example, the mission of the Solid Waste Association of North America is to advance the practice of environmental and economical management of municipal solid waste in North America. The nonprofit organization has eight technical divisions that provide consultation and services for collection and transfer; landfill gas; waste reduction, recycling, and composting; landfill management; special waste management; waste-to-energy; communication, education, and marketing; and planning and management.

Emerging public health challenges are associated with the informal sector such as individuals who conduct recycling rather than formal waste management efforts and planning provided by governmental and environmental organizations. While the informal recyclers do contribute to recycling and reusing discarded items, the techniques may be primitive at best and may expose workers to pollutants, injuries, respiratory and skin problems, infections, and serious health issues. The public health approach seeks to integrate informal and formal sectors to improve waste management and avoid the associated health issues. Such integration has been done successfully in Latin American countries, resulting in better waste management practices by the public and communities.

Turning garden and kitchen waste into dark, rich soil that can be used as fertilizer. Compost is decomposed organic matter.
Dual stream recycling—
Collection of pre-sorted recyclable materials into paper in one container and plastics, glass, and metals into another.
Landfill sites—
A site reserved for the disposal of waste materials, also called a dump or garbage dump.
Liquid material produced as water percolates through solid material and leaches constituents of the material such as that occurring in decomposing organic matter and solid waste.
Materials recovery facility—
A separate facility that receives, separates, and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to manufacturers.
A colorless and odorless gas that is the main component of natural gas; it is a hydrocarbon emitted into the atmosphere by burning coal and decomposing organic matter.
Methanogenic bacteria—
Microscopic organisms that do not require oxygen and produce methane as part of their metabolism.
Capable of being decomposed by light, especially sunlight.
Searching for and retrieving anything usable from discarded waste.
Waste management—
Disposal and recycling services provided for businesses and residences within a given geographic area, country, state, or municipality.

Public health surveillance of waste management methods is conducted to help control its effects on human health and the environment, mainly to ensure that waste management methods are able to reduce exposure to disease-causing organisms and heavy metals. Efforts are focused on reducing community exposure to multi-drug resistant bacteria and organisms that may cause transmission of infectious diseases.

This also includes reducing exposure of the public to medical waste. Healthcare waste management refers to the process of proper hygienic disposal of medical waste to protect patients, healthcare workers, and communities. Specific public health measures include planning, staffing and training staff, proper use of tools and medical equipment to avoid contamination, and proper disposal methods for pharmaceuticals and hazardous or infectious medical waste products. Public health officials are also concerned with possible negative long-term health effects from environmental substances such as dioxin and methane emissions from landfills or other waste management disposal methods, and the removal of heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and iron from inadequate waste management operations that may expose the public to contaminated soil or water.

See also Dioxins ; Hazardous waste ; Medical waste ; Ocean waste .



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Chang, Ni-Bin, and Ana Pires. Sustainable Solid Waste Management: An Engineering Approach. New York: Wiley, 2015.

Johnson, Bea. Zero Waste Home: The Ultimate Guide to Simplifying Your Life by Reducing Your Waste. New York: Scribner, 2013.


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Environmental Protection Agency, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC, 20460, (202) 272-0167, http://www.epa.gov .

International Solid Waste Association, Auerspergstrasse 15, Top 41, 1080 Vienna, Austria, 41 (1) 253-6001, www.iswa.org .

Solid Waste Association of North America, 709 Westchester Ave., Ste.106, West Harrison, NY, 10604, www.swana.org .

Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, PO Box240, Apia, Samoa, 20460, +685 (1) 20231, sprep@sprep.org, www.sprep.org .

L. Lee Culvert

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.