Waste Management

We have become casual about rubbish in our throwaway world, and leave it to municipal authorities to deal with it. But the pressure on landfill sites demands new solutions, and this means that, increasingly, environmental responsibility for waste disposal will be redirected back towards consumers and manufacturers.

The quantity of rubbish we produce has grown exponentially over the past century, with the relentless rise of consumer goods, packaging and plastics. In the not-so-distant past, when goods were sold in paper bags, and virtually everything was used and re-used, or burnt in the kitchen grate, households would have little to chuck out besides ash. Now, Britain produces 100 million tonnes of rubbish a year. Domestic or household waste accounts for one-sixth of this total - or nearly 300kg for every man, woman and child.

Most of this rubbish ends up in landfill sites, but space is fast running out. With growing environmental sensitivities, and ever more stringent EU directives, and the increasing economic burdens of waste management, the government is having to radically rethink its waste-management strategy.

Waste collection

In Britain, as in all Western industrialised countries, waste collection is the responsibility of the local authorities, and ultimately the government. Efficient and effective waste management is an essential part of civilised society. It is a function that is largely taken for granted: its importance and sheer scale often only comes to notice when things go wrong - for instance during a strike.

Most people have a fair idea of what they can and cannot put in their domestic rubbish bins; it is the duty of the local authority to keep reminding them of this. For larger quantities of rubbish and bulkier items, such as white goods (notably fridges and freezers), the public also needs access to waste disposal sites (or civic amenity sites); but some local authorities will also provide an on-demand service to collect bulky items directly from householders. These authorities are constantly performing a balancing act: failure to give householders, and indeed businesses, fair and free (or low-cost) access to waste disposal will result in fly-tipping and other such abuses, and it can prove even more costly to repair the damage than to provide the necessary services.

All local authorities in Britain publish details of their policies and facilities for waste disposal, and these are accessible through their websites. For a more general view of government policy, see the site of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: www.defra.gov.uk

Hazardous waste

Some kinds of waste must be kept apart from the usual stream of waste disposal. Hazardous waste is any kind of waste that could pose a serious danger to human beings or to other living organisms. It includes such things as chemicals, clinical (or medical) waste, fuel, paint, asbestos, gas canisters, pesticides, car batteries - anything that could be toxic, radioactive, flammable, corrosive or infectious. By far the biggest quantity of hazardous waste is produced by industry - 5 million tonnes of the stuff every year. But individual homeowners also produce their share: if you are in any doubt about how to dispose of such items, consult your local authority: there may well be special facilities at your local civic amenity site. To read more about the disposal of clinical waste, click here. For more details about legislation, directives and regulations concerning hazardous waste, see www.environment-agency.gov.uk

Landfill

What happens to all this waste after it leaves your home? The most common destination for rubbish worldwide is a landfill site. Essentially, the rubbish is tipped into a big hole in the ground - usually a hole created by quarrying or mining. In Britain about 70 per cent of waste goes to landfill sites. Modern landfills are carefully constructed and managed. They have impermeable floors of clay or heavy-duty plastic, and pipes to collect the toxic liquid called leachate, which drains to the bottom, and which otherwise might pollute groundwater. Heavy machinery is used to compact the rubbish, and layers of soil may be spread over it prevent odour, vermin and windblown debris. The decomposition that takes place in a landfill produces flammable, toxic gases, notably methane, an environmentally damaging greenhouse gas. However, this can be flared off through pipes, or alternatively it can be piped to a plant and burnt as a fuel to generate electricity. In some places (notably China) it is piped to households and used as a domestic gas. Once full, landfill sites can be covered over and sealed, and eventually rehabilitated as airports, golf courses, dry ski-slopes, and so on. There are separate landfill sites for hazardous waste, which, needless to say, are treated differently.

Landfill is a comparatively cheap option. The trouble with landfill is that virtually all industrialised countries are rapidly running out of suitable sites. Existing sites are filling up fast, and proposals for new sites are met with insurmountable opposition by those living in the vicinity. Land near big cities is very expensive: cheaper land further away incurs higher transport costs and journey times (collection and transportation already accounts for 75 per cent of waste management costs). From an environmental point of view, landfills are a poor option. The EU wants the UK's use of landfills to be cut to half its 1995 levels by 2013, and to 35 per cent by 2020 - a tough agenda. But by 2020, according to government targets, only 25 per cent of all rubbish will go to landfill. The key to success in this strategy lies is dramatically reducing the volume of waste produced in the first place, largely through recycling (nearly half will be recycled, according to the plan). Meanwhile, the pace accelerates as the total volume of waste in Britain grows by 3 per cent year on year, pushing waste disposal ever closer to crisis.

Incineration

So, if you cannot dump rubbish on the land, why not burn it? Incinerators reduce 85 per cent of rubbish to fine ash. This is what already happens to about 10 per cent of Britain's rubbish. What's more, we can use the rubbish as a fuel to produce electricity. The target is to increase the proportion of rubbish that is incinerated to 27 per cent by 2020.

Unfortunately, rubbish incinerators produce a large volume of toxic waste, in the form of gas and solids. Create air pollution, and the environmental fallout becomes an international issue. In recent years, great technical advances have been made in the process of cleaning ('scrubbing') gas emissions from incinerators, but these add considerably to the costs, and still some residual toxic pollutants escape. Another criticism is that incineration destroys large quantities of potentially recyclable materials, so the net energy loss is substantial. And it is difficult to build new incinerators, because - as with landfills - no one wants to live near to one.

The 'Three Rs' of rubbish

The search for a solution to waste disposal has produced so-called 'waste hierarchy', or the 'Three Rs' of rubbish: Reduce, Re-use, Recycle. We could all be less profligate with our rubbish. In the free-market economy, however, there has to be either an incentive or a penalty - a carrot or a stick. For manufacturers and businesses, the carrot could come from earning 'green' credentials that would attract customers towards them: for instance, some supermarkets have opted to use biodegradable plastic bags, or introduced a no-plastic-bag policy (customers have to remember to bring their own). The stick could be a regime of government enforcement through legislation, penalties and tax. To see more about recycling click here.

Zero-waste

Through the policy of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, bit by bit we edge towards the ultimate goal of producing no rubbish at all: a world of zero-waste. Everything could, in principle, be re-used or recycled - even currently irreducible residues. One initiative in this direction is to make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of their products (household appliances, cell phones, audiovisual equipment and so on) when consumers have finished them; this would quickly force manufacturers to incorporate features into the design of their products to render them easy to dismantle and make recycling cost-effective. Already EU legislation is pushing manufacturers along this path, such as the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, which makes them responsible for financing the collection, treatment, recovery and environmentally sound disposal of electrical equipment. Such developments will significantly change our attitude to rubbish: currently we churn it out and expect the environment to bear the cost; in the future, this cost will be increasingly transferred to manufacturers and the consumers.

Comments on this article

Husam Abuhamad 4 May, 2013

Hi,
We have a problem if we don't make any resolve, we can able to treat the rubbish and the world is going to increase. In the developing countries there are big problem, the problem is management the rubbish. in my opinion, we should arrange our program and vision for these countries. We suffer of the bad management this rubbish. We need good resolve about it. Lastly, i'd like to talk you, the world currently are one village. the pollution doesn't any borders in our sky.
Many thanks.

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