By Tim Cassese


Solid waste is created, and disposed of everyday around the world. As it moves through this cycle it ends up in landfills or as pollution in the environment. The ways in which humans have developed solid waste management over the centuries still bases much on original strategies to dispose of waste. Landfills, incineration and environmental dumping have been primary methods to get solid waste out of view. These methods create further impacts if not properly monitored, and have severe repercussions for life on Earth. As a modern society, the United States sets an example for other countries, yet the United States per capita produces 4.5 pounds of waste per day (EPA, 2009b). Population growth continually creates more waste producers; therefore waste must be reduced on a personal basis to maintain the balance of which waste is currently managed. Increased efforts in recycling, reducing, reusing, and refusing could substantially minimize solid waste production in the United States ensuring healthy living conditions for the future.



As the United States population climbs to over 300 million people (U.S. Census Bureau, 2009), humans must expect future complications from surpassing Earth's carrying capacity. One major factor will be reducing solid waste production through proper management and disposal in order to reduce the impact on the environment. United States consumption boomed after World War II to keep producing and create a strong economy. Creating a land where people would be able to purchase all their needs in a convenient fashion, disposing of their waste simply by putting the trash can out by the curb, but where does it actually go. With the United States currently producing 249 million tons of municipal solid waste each year (EPA, 2009b), waste management must be considered as population rises. Different types of waste disposal have been used over recent years, all with advantages and disadvantages. Waste is being produced at a constant rate, and landfills are a limited resource, waste reduction efforts must be implemented to ensure sanitary conditions for the future. Under developed countries have already faced waste management problems creating disease outbreak, disaster zones, and severe environmental impacts. People need to become more sustainably conscious and aware of their consumption or waste will overflow into living spaces. Technological advances allow for new benefits to be utilized from solid waste, such as methane emissions from waste decomposition creating a new energy source producing 1,500 megawatts annually (EPA, 2009a). Recycling has been able to be implemented at a larger scale, with greater efforts creating an all time high recovery rate of 33% (EPA, 2009b). The United States being one of the most powerful countries in the world must consider the possible impacts of solid waste production, as consumption based life styles produce excessive amounts of waste that must be managed properly.



Figure 1. Total solid waste generation by material (EPA, 2009b).

Solid waste refers to all waste produced by agriculture, mineral extraction, industry, and municipalities. Municipal solid waste refers to waste created by households, commercial, and institutional settings (DEC, 2010). This is the most common type of waste, with the greatest possibilities for personal change, also referred to simply as solid waste, trash, or garbage (EPA, 2010b).

Municipal solid waste is further broken down into the demographics of each type of waste (Figure 1). Most of what is being produced in solid waste is paper, yard trimmings, food scraps, and plastics. These types of waste are some of the most easily recovered types of waste, possibly removing them from the waste stream entirely. These four types of waste create almost 70% of the 250 million tons of annual solid waste production in the United States (EPA, 2009b). This gives United States waste production as a whole a great possible waste recovery rate.

As the United States began pursuing waste recovery programs, greater efforts towards composting, recycling, and incineration became popular methods. Population's continuous growth has brought annual production up to 249 million tons in 2008 (Figure 2), however 33% of this waste is recycled and composted (EPA, 2009b). This means that even though we produce a large amount of waste, people are recovering waste at a rate where it reduces our solid waste per capita by one and a half pounds per day (EPA, 2009b).

Figure 2. Municipal solid waste produced over the past five decades (EPA, 2009b).




Production of waste is an endless cycle, therefore disposal must efficiently process waste to keep living space sanitary and not harm the complex ecosystems of Earth. Modern society produces a wide array of plastics, and other materials in plentiful amounts increasing the difficulty of processing waste properly. As more waste is produced into a finite amount of space, waste volume must be minimized to keep discarded waste within sanitary landfills.

Litter: Improper disposal or careless handling of solid waste known as littering is a problem that ruins the natural beauty of Earth. At around 51 billion pieces annually in the United States (KAB, 2009), litter creates many impacts on ecosystems. Causing harm to animals mistaking items for food, and chemicals leaching from the garbage are the biggest problems today. Accounting for 11.5 billion dollars worth of clean up each year, littering is a bad habit that needs to be broken. In other countries littering is sometimes the only option of disposal with no waste disposal system in place. Litter around the world pollutes many environments for humans and animals. Cigarette products being the biggest offenders, options like pocket ash trays have been distributed in an attempt to reduce this hazardous trash (KAB, 2009). As litter gets moved by environmental factors it channels into waterways and is flushed into the oceans. Studies have shown that keeping a place clean and pleasing to the eye is the best way to reduce littering, as people are more likely to litter in an area which already has copious amounts of litter (KAB, 2009).

Marine Pollution: Allowing for waste to be taken out of view and left far out at sea. This pollution can become problematic. Incineration on barges became popular to break down waste before remnants are dumped into the ocean, allowing the waste to sink better. People wanted to end ocean dumping when high bacteria levels of ocean beaches, and hazardous waste was washing up on shore. This created the Ocean Dumping Ban Act of 1988, which decreed no sewage sludge or industrial waste to be dumped after 1991(Montgomery, 2006).

Incineration: Becoming increasingly popular due to its ability to reduce the volume of waste, this energy intensive process breaks down waste using temperatures of up to 1700 degrees Celsius (Montgomery, 2006). Using high temperatures breaks down hazardous compounds in the waste have more simple gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and water to be produced. Along with these greenhouse gases, incineration also releases particulates into the air sometimes containing heavy metals. Elements of the exhaust are based off of the waste which was incinerated, polluting the area surrounding the plant, and the atmosphere. As technology increases the process has advanced to capture energy back from the heat that is produced, making it somewhat more sensible to use as a disposal and waste reduction method. Also known as combustion with energy recovery, it reduces our annual waste production by 12.6% (Figure 3, EPA, 2009b).

Landfills: The most traditional ways for advanced societies to deal with waste is to collection into a sanitary landfill. Transfer stations also act as a hub for waste to be collected and brought to a landfill where it remains until decomposed back to earth. Landfills are engineered areas where the underlying permeable soil has been blocked by a double composite layer to reduce leaching of chemicals released from the waste (Montgomery, 2006, DEC, 2010). As the waste is loaded into the liner, organic layers of dirt are added each day to add microbes and help biodegrade the waste which will be buried in the landfill. This liner can also act as a dish, catching rain water to the point of flooding, releasing waste leachate. This causes the need for secondary leachate collection systems to be installed, to protect surrounding environments from trace chemicals (DEC, 2010). This is crucial to not contaminate groundwater and underground aquifers near the landfill, as the waste will remain there permanently as bacteria break down the waste into organics over hundreds or thousands of years (No More Trash, 2009). It has been found that moisture and certain types of bacteria which can be added into landfills to increase decomposition rates (EPA, 2010a). A byproduct of the bacteria’s decomposing is the production of methane, a greenhouse gas which is also able to be use to power turbines to create energy (Montgomery, 2006, EPA, 2010a).

The recycling and composting recovery effort reduces United States' waste by 33%, followed by 12.6% combustion with recovery (incineration), leaving 54.2% (135 million tons) discarded into landfills annually (Figure 3, EPA, 2009b).

Figure  3. Break up of Waste Management in the United States (EPA, 2009b)



Figure 4. United States recycling rates over the past 50 years (EPA, 2009b).

Recycle: As the United States began to discover the solid waste production boom after the post-war consumption based society, it realized they needed to divert waste (Figure 4). Allowing for disposable packaging to be recycled utilizing already refined materials to be remanufactured.

Figure 5. Solid Waste Recovery Rates in 1960 (EPA, 2009b).

Figure 6. Solid Waste Recovery Rates in 2008 (EPA, 2009b).

Looking at the increased amount of waste recovered from 1960 to 2008, it is clear that most people understand recycling is necessary to reduce solid waste impacts (Figures 5 and 6). Recycling is now recovering 33% of total waste production (EPA, 2009b). This greatly reduces solid waste entering landfills and energy consumption by reusing previously refined materials (Figure 6).

From a recycling point of view, how much difference can one ton of newspaper make? If discarded as waste in a landfill it would take up a little over 100 cubic feet, and use 18 trees to reproduce the same amount of newsprint. If recycled it would save the 18 trees, and use 60% less energy to be reproduced into another newspaper (Montgomery, 2006). Recycling has a two fold effect, primarily reducing waste but also saving energy.

Figure 7. Plastic Code Descriptions (Wordpress, 2009).

Part of what makes recycling so complicated today is the array of plastics and other waste materials that may or may not be accepted by the recycling center (Figure 7). As more types of plastics are created, it becomes more difficult to separate them to ensure plastics to not become mixed in the process. This can cause durability and other properties of plastics to be changed when remanufactured. Lower recycle number on plastics are more likely to be accepted by recycle centers, where higher numbers are not usually recycled because of these difficulties (Word Press, 2009). Higher number plastics are generally more durable, taking them much longer to biodegrade if polluting the environment or in a landfill.

Reduce: Source reduction or waste prevention is an easy way to prevent waste from ever entering into the process of use and disposal. By being less dependent on disposables and using reusable mugs or bags for example produce less waste in everyday life. Small steps in reducing can greatly contribute to the efficiency of the waste cycle as waste production decreases per capita.

Reuse: Use items that are normally one-time use for other reasons. This reduces the need for new disposable items and also extends the product’s lifespan (EPA, 2009b). There are many ways to reuse containers, paper products, even food scraps being composted into soil. Reuse is a great way to divert waste from landfills, and help in reducing consumption of disposable products.

Refuse: Do not buy products with excessive packaging or harmful materials and processes. Precycling could start a revolution where companies will see the necessity to package products with less material. Convenience based packaging usually creates excess waste, but with use of reusable containers along with buying in bulk, concentrated items, or recycled material provide another source reduction. Styrofoam alone takes over one million years to decompose (No More Trash, 2009), creating a very easy way to reduce the amount of Styrofoam on the planet by boycotting its use. Refusing not only reduces personal waste, but creates a trend that companies will consider when designing packaging for future products.



One recent discovery beneficial to large waste deposits is the production of methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas created by microbes in animal manure, natural deposits in the earth, and decomposition (EPA, 2010a). This has been found to be released in plentiful amounts of gas from the degradation of waste which has its advantages and disadvantages. An advantage is that it can be harnessed by tubular vents placed into solid waste landfills, and released gas can be used for heat energy or to power specially designed motors (EPA, 2010a). Since this gas is a major contributor to global warming, it has become very popular to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and gain power from a renewable source.

• Landfills are the second largest human caused methane source on earth (
SD, 2009; EPA, 2010a).

• Humans are responsible for more than 50% of global methane emissions (
EPA, 2010a).

• Over 500 landfills in the United States already produce 1,500 MW of electricity annually harnessed from waste gases (Figure 8, EPA, 2009a).

Bacteria in landfills are able to produce methane as a byproduct of decomposition in anaerobic environments (lacking oxygen). Methane gas naturally occurs in wetlands, permafrost, bodies of water, and wildfires in smaller amounts (EPA, 2010a). In landfills the amount of methane produced varies with climate since moisture level and temperature controls decomposition rate (EPA, 2010a). Methane is lighter than air causing it to rise up into the atmosphere which is sometimes burned off to reduce methane entering the atmosphere (EPA, 2010a). In modern gas harnessing system it is then directed into a power plant, powering an engine and producing electricity while reducing emissions.

The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 declared that greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 25% by 2020 (Think Green Live Clean, 2009). Methane is a major focus of the program because it is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases (EPA, 2010a).

Figure 8. Large scale landfills with methane capture (EPA, 2009a).



President Obama has said that he will "bring a renewed focus on fundamental environmental issues" (Waste Age, 2009), looking to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by humans abundant solid waste. Through the revamping of the recycling industry and better processing of solid waste, methane will be managed properly for minimal impacts and greater benefits. President Obama is aware of the energy possibilities that methane holds, and looks to expand the amount of sites using methane capture technology (Figure 6) to produce more energy and jobs. The major focus on solid waste management is reducing greenhouse gases and to get the clean air act updated to better regulate greenhouse gas emissions by getting the Environmental Protection Agency better funding. This will open up a large job market for "mitigating climate change, generating additional renewable power for the grid, improving our energy security" (Waste Age, 2009).

A large undertaking by United States government and Environmental Protection Agency is aimed to address an abundance of waste at the Mexican border. There is hazardous waste, solid waste, which consists of large amounts of scrap tires left behind from manufacturing processes in industrial areas near the border (EPA, 2009c). This affects water sheds along the Rio Grande which makes it an environmental problem for the United States as well. Many communities in this area are too poor to manage this build up of waste, and poor enforcement is turning improper disposal into a serious issue. The US-Mexico Border 2012 Program is run by the Environmental Protection Agency and has been working against this problem since 2004 (EPA, 2009c). The goal of this program is to use source reduction to minimize electronic waste including lead batteries, tire pile prevention, and better waste management. Necessary for both Mexican and American health standards, as the hazardous waste is releasing toxins.



Even though the annual production of solid waste is incredibly high, progress is being made to help stabilize growth. With recovery rates growing in the past decade it gives hope to the future of relying on waste recovery rather than waste depositing. The United States economy is not going to change from being a consumption based society, but it can become more waste conscious in the products it supports. The markets for previously recycled items, bulk foods and impact reducing products are more available than ever. As awareness continues to grow about the importance of recovery efforts more and more people will be willing to recycle or compost. As methods are implemented for people to reduce their waste easily, solid waste production will continue to stabilize helping reduce impacts felt worldwide.



Contact if you want to stop receiving junk mail. In America it claims 100 million trees for 100 billion pieces of mail each year (Recycle Now, Nd.).

One way everyone can take action today is to write a letter. Spread awareness that consumers care about environmentally friendly products. Below are some pre-written letters to specified companies to fill in appropriately, or create your own and mail it to the business or legislator of your choice to make a change!

Write to Kraft Foods Inc., and let them know how you feel about their excessive use of packaging as the second largest food maker.

Kraft Foods Action Letter

Express gratitude to Poland Springs for their efforts in reducing the amount of plastic in each bottle by 30% and use of cardboard by 75%. Poland Springs Action Letter



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Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2009b. Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2008. Retrieved on January 22, 2010 from

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2009c. Waste Policy Forum. Retrieved on April 24, 2010 from

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2010a. Methane Sources and Emissions. Retrieved on March 9, 2010 from

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2010b. Municipal Solid Waste – Non-hazardous Waste – Wastes. Retrieved on April 24, 2010 from

Keep America Beautiful (KAB), 2009. Litter Prevention. Retrieved on April 24, 2010 from

Montgomery, Carla W. Environmental Geology Seventh Edition. Mcgraw-Hill, New York, NY, p. 361-372.

No More Trash, 2009. Litter Facts and Research. Retrieved on April 28, 2010 from

Recycle Now, Nd. Waste Reduction. Retrieved on April 27, 2010 from

Science Daily (SD), 2009. Landfill Cover Soil Methane Oxidation Underestimated. Retrieved on March 9, 2010 from

Think Green Live Clean, 2009. Landfills Collecting Methane and Reducing Emissions. Retrieved on January 28, 2010 from

U.S.Census Bureau, 2009. U.S and World Population Clocks. Retrieved on February 1, 2010 from

Waste Age, 2009. Officials say the new administration's emphasis on climate change will impact the waste industry. Retrieved on March 29, 2010 from

Word Press, 2009. Plastic Bottles: Are They Safe & What Do The Numbers Mean? Retrieved on April 28, from