The Refuse of Living
Municipal Solid Waste [MSW] is simply a technical term for all that stuff we get rid of. It’s all of those items that we’ve used and then discarded at home, school, and work — everything that goes into the trash, recycling container, or compost pile. It might be cardboard boxes, old magazines or paperwork, dead leaves from the yard, food cans, broken appliances or worn-out furniture, used paper towels, leftovers, scrap wood, empty glass or plastic bottles, etc. According to the EPA, the 251 million tons of stuff we tossed in 2012 looked like this:
- Paper: 27.4%
- Food Waste: 14.5%
- Yard Trimmings: 13.5%
- Plastics: 12.7%
- Metals: 8.9%
- Rubber, Leather, and Textiles: 8.7%
- Wood: 6.3%
- Glass: 4.6%
- Other: 3.4%
MSW does not include industrial waste, hazardous waste, or construction waste.
The History of MSW
Up until the early 1800s, there was no organized public works system in the United States for the removal of refuse, which created conditions ripe for epidemics. In the 19th century, sanitary engineers focused on creating water treatment and sewage facilities in an effort to contain contagious diseases. Solid waste management was addressed in the 1880s, but it was deemed a local responsibility, rather than regional or nationwide, with municipal dumps acting as the repository for each city’s or town’s waste.
Over the following decades, waste collection became more efficient via innovations like trucks, motorized street sweepers, landfills, and incinerators. In 1976, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act created a framework for the management of all solid waste, used to this day along with 1984 amendments that focus on waste minimization.
The 1980s and 1990s were a wake-up call for the nation, with the closure of many municipal dumps and the overflowing landfills. More private companies stepped in to manage the transportation and disposal of waste, while government agencies were formed to regulate the landfills, recycling programs, and incineration.
Where does MSW Go Today?
After the garbage crisis in the end of the last century, strides have been taken to more responsibly dispose of waste. Landfills meet stricter environmental standards, and depending on location, goods can be converted to energy, recycled, or composted on industrial scales.
The landfill is the most common destination of waste disposal — whatever you put in your curbside trashcan will likely end up there, even if it’s something that could be recycled. Landfills and dumps are regulated by local and federal governments, and must meet specific location, design, operation, and closure requirements. One of the biggest concerns of landfills is their effect on the environment. For example, food rotting in a landfill releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. Another concern is that all goods ending up in a landfill lose the potential commercial value they’d have had if recycled. But there’s a positive side to some of today’s landfills: Some landfills can be used to generate electricity via methane gas produced by decomposing biomass (like food); when capped, landfills can be used for recreation, such as parks or golf courses.
Some non-recyclable MSW is directed to waste-to-energy plants, which can create energy from the decomposing waste. The energy can be used to create heat, electricity, and fuel. There are about 86 such plants in the United States, and in 2011, they generated about 14 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, roughly the equivalent of what is used by 1.3 million U.S. households. While there are concerns about emissions from waste-to-energy plants, the up-side is that these facilities often decrease overall waste disposal energy needs.
When you put your recyclable goods, such as plastic, paper, metal, and glass, in designated bins for curbside pickup, they are diverted to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), where they are processed into materials that can then be used for manufacturing. Though there can be challenges with the quality of recycled materials, ultimately recycling has a huge positive environmental benefit. Recycling reduces the amount of waste going to the landfill, and lessens the toll on resources and energy for manufacturing new products from raw materials. Different recycling facilities are capable of processing different materials, so it’s always important to check with your local service to find out exactly what materials they accept.
Some communities have municipal composting programs, with bins in which consumers can dispose of food scraps and other materials that have the capability to break down into humus, a soil made of organic matter. More commonly, composting is done by the household itself or, occasionally, by a business. It is important that only certain components go into a composting setup (i.e. no animal proteins, fats, human or animal waste) and that the proper balance of carbon- and nitrogen-based ingredients is maintained. Composting diverts food waste from the landfills, where it could produce methane gas, and creates a soil amendment for gardeners that can help reduce the need for chemical fertilizer.
The Future of MSW
A global garbage crisis has spurred government officials, environmentalists and others to explore ways that this and future generations can deal with the amount of rubbish humankind and industry generate. Here are some actions that can be taken to decrease the amount of waste generated:
- Choose products that are built to last, which won’t need to be discarded and replaced.
- Buy products with little or no packaging, such as bulk items.
- Buy products made with post-consumer recycled content.
- Reuse and repurpose goods as much as possible.
- Donate unwanted items to thrift stores or charities so they can be reused by others.
- Recycle and compost appropriate items.
- Finally, one of the best ways to reduce waste is to reduce your overall consumption of goods that might eventually need to be disposed.