What is Solid Waste?

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What is Solid Waste?

If it is not liquid or gas, it is solid.  If we discard it, it is waste.  There are two sources of waste in this world:  Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) and Industrial Solid Waste.  MSW is basically waste that we generate in our own homes and offices and makes up only 1.5% of the waste we generate in the United States. Industrial Solid Waste accounts for a whopping 98.5% of the solid waste that the United States generates.  It sounds to me like we are a nation of consumers, fueling an industry that generates entirely too much waste.

Speaking of the United States and the solid waste we generate, the United States makes up roughly 4.6% of the world population. However, we generate about 1/3 of the solid waste in the world.  Think about what that says for a second, and soak in the visual of it below.

U.S. vs. World pie chart

U.S. Population

chart of U.S. solid waste vs. rest of world

U.S. Solid Waste vs. Rest of World

What in the world should we do with all of this solid waste?  Landfills have been one solution for quite some time, but it is clear that other solutions are needed.  Along came recycling and has helped, but not solved the problems generated by such massive solid waste, waste that is only growing as the population increases.  There is also the growing push for source reduction, reusing of materials, and composting.  Combustion with energy recovery and incinerating trash have also become options.  The following visual demonstrates the hierarchy of the methods that are preferred (courtesy of www.911earth.com).


Solid Waste Management Hierachy

Clearly, we want to avoid waste disposal.  However, it is a necessary evil at this stage of our evolutionary development.  You might think that garbage, once it leaves your sight, magically goes away and you never have to worry about it again. This is not always true.  Let us explore a few methods of how MSW is disposed of.

1.  Open Dumps – Shockingly enough, open dumps still account for half of the solid waste in the world.  There are several thousand dumps in the United States alone.  These unsanitary means of disposing solid waste results in harmful runoff, leachates, and toxic gasses. Check out this lovely picture courtesy of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources.


Open Dump

2.  Sanitary Landfills – This is obviously a preferred solution to open dumps.  Essentially, trash is smashed down (compacted) and covered with a layer of earth once a day.  When the site is full, a thick layer of earth is deposited on top. One requirement of sanitary landfills is that it contains barriers that do not allow waste to escape.  Also, venting of gases is required for sanitary landfills.  While the number of has decreased by more than half over the last 25 years, sanitary landfills still pose a problem in that they take up valuable land. Below is a diagram of how sanitary landfills are designed, courtesy of www.HowStuffWorks.com.




3.  Incineration – What is our brilliant solution to saving the space that sanitary landfills consume? We burn the garbage.  Really, we do.  Despite saving valuable space, this is a very expensive solution because it requires special furnaces that break down hazardous compounds.  The heat that is used, however, can be recovered and used for energy.  An example of this is in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they have reduced landfill requirements by 95% and have saved $50K in heating costs.  If you do not mind the idea that these furnaces puff highly toxic gases into our already choking atmosphere, this is clearly a great solution. Below is a great diagram of how this works (courtesy of ecomaine).



4. Ocean Dumping – Maybe burying trash in the ground or burning it is not for you.  Perhaps you would prefer to just plop it on a ship, haul it out to the big, blue ocean, and just push it out of your life. After all, who really cares what happens at the bottom of the ocean, right? Oh, how wrong you are. Never mind the horrible effect that ocean dumping has on marine life and the destruction of unfathomably valuable habitats, that trash can wash right back to the beach and end up floating around your precious vacation spot.  Sounds like fun, right? Apparently, there are “preferred” ways to do this.  I, for one, am not buying it.  The following photo is courtesy of www.go3project.com.  Who wants to go swimming?


Ocean Dumping

That, my friends, is the lesson on trash.  The moral of the story is to follow the solid waste management hierarchy. Try to avoid using stuff you do not need to use.  When you cannot avoid it, find ways to reuse it.  When you cannot reuse it, ask yourself if it can be composted or recycled.  If you cannot make any of those suggestions work, at least you now know where it goes.

Once again, thank you to Kelly Calvelage for compiling all of the major information in this post!

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