Toxics Action Center
Toxics Action Center

Waste

The Problem:

We Make a Lot of Waste

According to the EPA, each year, Americans generate over 250 millions tons of trash and we only recycle or compost 1.51 pounds of the 4.4 pounds of waste each person generates per day!

We can reduce the waste that we make by the 4 Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle, and repurposing.

Our Waste Is Toxic

Due to largely to lax governmental regulation on an ever-growing chemical industry, everyday products that are used and thrown away contain more dangerous and health-affecting chemicals than ever before. Even those chemicals whose health implications are at this point clear, such as Biphenyl-A (BPA), commonly found in plastics like toys, are poorly regulated. The unprecedented toxicity of garbage exacerbates the problem that nationally we have no clear solution for dealing with waste.

More than 60,000 untested chemicals pervade the consumer products on our shelves and in our homes.

Regulations Favor Special Interests

Because the waste business has become a commercial, money making venture, citizens are outmatched at the state house by industry lobbyists. Regulations, therefore, currently make it difficult for communities or states to effectively regulate waste management facilities, and difficult to devote resources to recycling or waste reduction programs.

The waste industry itself is a commercial business. Large corporations like Casella Waste Industries and Waste Management dominate all aspects of the market and benefit from operating landfills and incinerators, along with recycling facilities. Since the waste management facilities have become big businesses, the corporate need to make a profit outweighs the community’s need reduce waste and to protect health and the environment from potentially destructive waste management practices. In fact, even if a community designed and implemented a zero waste program in their own town, they would not be able to prevent waste from other municipalities or states from coming into a commercial facility in their borders.

In spite of local objections, government officials continue to work hand in hand with waste industry officials to permit massive expansions to landfills, increase waste tonnage in incineration, and develop new facilities-like trash transfer stations-to increase their profits. Governments are so pressured to find places to dispose waste that they devote very few resources to developing functional programs for recycling, and instead rely on short-sighted, quick-fix solutions. As a result, we have become reliant upon dying technologies to deal with waste. We are less creative and committed to developing new technologies to reduce waste and devoting resources to these programs. Problems with solid waste regulation include a lack of enforcement of environmental regulations at solid waste facilities by federal and state officials and a tendency of approving expansions once an initial permit has been granted. Furthermore, state and federal officials devote few resources to new solid waste programs that would reduce volume and toxicity of waste or increase recycling

Landfills

Landfills and dumps poison our air, water, land, and food supplies, and their use fuels an unsustainable linear system of consumption and wasting. As the largest human-created source of methane gas, landfills are also a significant contributor to global climate change. We recognize that incinerators are not an alternative to landfills, but rather a step before landfills, since the toxic ash left in incinerators ends up being landfilled.

The EPA says that all landfills eventually leak, so claims that “state of the art technology,” will protect our groundwater and our communities by waste industry representatives are never true. In addition to threats to groundwater, landfills give off potentially harmful gases, and odors will often permeate the neighborhoods. Some studies show that birth defects increase in communities surrounding landfills. Landfills are often classified by the type of waste they can accept: Municipal waste, medical waste, special waste, or hazardous waste landfills are four common types. Because even our household waste contains toxic chemicals, it is not significantly safer to live near a municipal or special waste landfill than one that accepts more toxic waste. The types of waste accepted at any particular facility are not regulated or monitored adequately by state agencies, therefore the companies often have broad discretion regarding what waste is deposited in the landfill even if the law specifies otherwise. One particular concern with landfills is the post-closure period, in which many facilities are used as base for athletic fields, playground, parking lots or other facilities after their active period is over. Post-closure uses such as this can lead to cracks in the cover, and subsequent leakage. In addition, waste industry companies are responsible for the liability for such problems for often no more than 30 years. People living near landfills suffer loss of quality of life during operation: the facilities cause horrific odor, decreased property value, and high traffic in their neighborhoods.

For more information on landfills, see our report Casella: Coming to a Community Near You?

Check out our Williston, VT story about how we helped activists stop a landfill proposal in their neighborhood and call for the adoption of a zero-waste program instead:

Incineration (and Incineration by other names)

Waste incineration is landfilling into our air instead of into our water. Incinerating our waste releases toxic chemicals, such as lead and mercury, from the smoke stacks, and even produces additional byproducts in the stacks at certain temperatures (dioxins and furans). Because of a constantly changing waste stream and the need to maintain very high temperatures, incinerators can rarely maintain a specific consistent combustion rate over time. They may pass a stack test one day, and be out of compliance the next day. In addition, incinerators produce toxic ash when the toxic chemicals and heavy metals in the waste concentrate in the left over waste at the bottom of the stack. This waste then has to be disposed of in a landfill. Incineration does not eliminate waste; it simply redistributes toxic chemicals into the air and produces another form of waste (ash) to be landfilled. Another problem with incineration is that fugitive emissions are often released by “tipping floors,” or the areas where the waste collects before it goes into the stack. The waste begins to decompose and releases toxic chemicals into the open air, threatening worker health and safety and impacting nearby neighborhoods.

Quality of life is also impacted by incinerators, which are plagued by odors, increased truck traffic and reduced property values.

Gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc technologies are marketed by industry as a “green” method of waste management, but this is not true.  These facilities burn waste with little or no oxygen, making them very similar to traditional incinerators.  Also like incinerators, gasification facilities release ash into the air that contaminates our health and environment with toxins.  Gasification and pyrolysis are considered to be “green” because they allow energy to be produced from burning waste, instead of fossil fuels.  Burning waste, however, is not environmentally sound since toxics are still released into the air.  There are safer energy alternatives that produce energy at lower prices, such as wind and water energy.  Gasification diverts energy and resources away from cleaner energy sources and recycling efforts.

For more information on incineration, gasification, pyrolysis, and plasma arc technologies, see An Industry Blowing Smoke: 10 Reasons Why Gasification, Pyrolysis & Plasma Incineration Are Not “Green Solutions”.

The Solution: Zero Waste

The solution to waste rests in reducing the volume and the toxicity of our garbage.  Zero Waste aims for the elimination of, rather than simply the “management” of, waste.   “Waste” is something cast off with little to no value – but many items individuals throw away have value to other people, businesses, and communities. For instance, organic “waste” is the feedstock of a commercial composting operation, which turns food, leaves, brush, and manure into compost to feed the soil at farms and residential and business landscaping projects.

Zero Waste is not any single technology, program, or policy.  Zero Waste is a goal, a process, and a vision that shifts how we think about and use resources: it is a whole-system approach that targets a major change in the way materials flow through our economy.  It is the opposite of an end-of-pipe solution.   Instead, Zero Waste is a bold approach to waste management that looks at both the both the front end (production and design) and the back end (reuse and reprocessing) of material flow, and solutions to connect the two.  Zero Waste centers around reducing needless consumption, minimizing waste, maximizing recycling, and incentivizing the manufacturing of products that can be intentionally reused, repaired, or recycled back into the marketplace.

Sludge

Residuals, biosolids, septage, sewage, wastewater byproduct, compost: there are many names for sludge and sludge products. Sludge is sometimes solid, sometimes liquid material generated by wastewater treatment plants and used as fertilizer on fields, in gravel pits, and on forestry lots throughout the region.

Sludge contains measurable quantities of pollutants, such as heavy metals, dioxin, and other toxic chemicals. Sludge also contains pathogens–human germs, bacteria, viruses, and parasites. And sludge smells: sludge odor is more than just a nuisance, it is a public health threat, which has been linked to respiratory problems and death.

For more on Salvage Yards, click here.