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Land for Waste Disposal


In the past, much of society thought (in as much as it was thought of at all) that the waste produced by human society was of a small enough volume that it could be easily absorbed by the environment. However, with increases in the world population, industrialization, urbanization and other developments, such a view has become completely untenable.

With these massive changes in society, the amount of waste produced, as well as the amount of environmentally harmful waste created has increased dramatically, while innovations in waste disposal have lagged behind considerably. Recent increases in the attention given to environmental issues have spurred considerable concern in relation to how waste is dealt with and how society can reduce the overall amount of waste produced; however, while this has been a promising development, far more work remains to be done in this area.

Context Within Nora

Relationship to Other Sources

Air quality –Improper waste disposal, such as the burning of the waste to reduce its quantity, releases harmful pollutants into the air.

water (groundwater, freshwater) – Chemicals and other harmful pollutants are easily washed into groundwater and taken away to the nearest body of water, sometimes polluting lakes, rivers, and oceans with bulk waste as well.

Minerals – The type of soil used in particular landfills can help absorb harmful chemicals, as well as be harmed by chemicals on the flip side of things.

Living things – Plants, animals, and humans all must deal with the consequences of improper land disposal. The area it takes up, the hassles it produces, the chemicals and pollutants it puts out, and the general unpleasant presence of this problem puts a strain on all living things.

Habitats and ecosystems – Many habitats and ecosystems have and continue to be easily destroyed in order to not only house the millions of acres needed globally to dump our waste, but are inadvertently being destroyed due to rampant pollution associated with these dump sites.

Knowledge – Basic knowledge of green ways to dispose waste, information on recycling, and education on smarter landfills and GIS systems can all help further the cause of smarter waste disposal.

Relationship to Other Needs

Health – Improper waste disposal can easily lead to harmful side effects. The pollutants, both physical and chemical, can cause many diseases. Mental health may also be an issue when dealing with the aesthetic appeal/ depression due to the problem.

Opportunities to learn – see knowledge section above

Participation – Learning about the problem, spreading word on the solution, and participating actively as much as one can with improper waste disposal and smarter landfills are all essential in improving the quality of land for waste disposal overall.

Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance and Scarcity

When dealing with waste, the least desirable option in terms of sustainability, disposal, is unfortunately the option that is most frequently selected all over the world. The reason for this is readily apparent, as disposing waste is the most inexpensive option by far, as such; it is easy to see why the disposal of waste into landfills accounts for at least three-quarters of global waste management (Sharma). However, there are considerable drawbacks to the disposal of waste in landfills both in terms of scarcity and environmental sustainability.

Firstly, the actual amount of land available for landfill use can be limited by the overall availability of land in a given area. Japan provides an obvious example of this, and indeed, their restrictive lack of available land has forced the country to seek out alternative methods of handling waste that will be discussed further later (Nakamura). In addition to this, regardless of the amount of land potentially available for usage as a landfill, not all land is suitable. This issue is illustrated by the tendency of people in developing countries to dispose of waste in whatever area is convenient or readily available.

The primary issue associated with this behavior is that when waste is exposed to water, the water runs off, carrying the polluting chemical agents commonly present in waste. This water can then be absorbed into the ground and thus eventually reach groundwater and other water sources and pollute them. These problems are compounded when the waste is burnt in order to reduce its quantity, as this releases pollutants into the air as well. When landfills are more deliberately developed to address such problems, they tend to be situated over less porous clay soil and numerous other technological solutions are used to further limit the possibility of polluted water reaching clean water sources. Some of the additional methods used include lining the landfill with a protective barrier to prevent such seepage, deliberately contouring the land to limit runoff, and periodically covering the existing waste with a layer of clean clay soil to further prevent buildup of polluted water.

While the disposal of waste into landfills is far from being a desirable method of waste management, there are numerous methods of making such activity more sustainable, and indeed, there have been increasing efforts towards using new technology to select the most sustainable and least environmentally problematic sites for new landfill creation (Mahamid and Thawaba). However, there remain substantial barriers to the implementation of more sustainable and scientific measures aimed at improving how landfills are maintained and how land is selected for usage, especially in developing countries with extremely limited resources for such activity.

As previously mentioned, one of the single largest causes of increased scarcity of land for waste disposal was been the enormous increase in the amount of waste produced, especially in the past few decades. Much of this in-crease has resulted from continued population growth, but the primary contributor has been the industrialization and massive consumerism in wealthy countries. The rise of China as an increasingly consumerism society, coupled with its massive population, has given further cause for concern. See Waste Management 2030 and the European Environmental Agency Report.

In particular, the amount of plastic waste generated, particularly in wealthier countries, has increased dramatically. While plastic generally composes less than a quarter of landfill volume, the nearly immeasurable amount of time that is required for plastic to biodegrade has made rampant increases in the amount disposed a major concern. Despite the considerable advantages to recycling or reusing plastics and the numerous methods available, less than 10% of all plastic is recycled (Sharma).

As illustrated by the waste management pyramid, disposal is the least favored method by which waste can be satisfactorily managed, as there are serious problems of sustainability even when landfills are used and managed properly. Directly above disposal is energy recovery, which is utilized in many places, especially in areas where the use of landfills is problematic or some aspect of disposal is impractical or restricted. The process of energy recovery involves the processing of waste in order to produce energy or fuel while simultaneously destroying much of the waste. The methods vary, although incineration is the most common manner of producing energy using waste materials. This constructive incineration, while far different from instances of the burning of waste outdoors in an uncontrolled environment, still results in the similar, albeit mitigated, problem of air pollution. In particular, considerable levels of CO2 and numerous other airborne pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide are produced and released in this process (Waste Gasification). Moreover, although energy recovery is only moderately more sustainable than simple disposal, its implementation remains limited to developed areas with the funds to develop the facilities necessary for safe incineration or other forms of energy recovery, and even when such funding is available, energy recovery is still infrequently undertaken pro-vided cheap land exists for the construction of land-fills.

Above disposal and energy recovery is recycling, which occurs with increasing frequency in many parts of the world and which will be discussed later. However, de-spite the continual increase in recycling, there still exist numerous constraints that pre-vent broader implementation of recycling. In particular, most governments have sparse legislative mandates that would force greater levels of recycling. Moreover, no internationally (or nationally, within the US) consistent method of labeling items in order to simplify the process of sorting recyclables exists at this point. Likewise, composting, which can be utilized to recycle organic waste, remains a relatively uncommon practice despite the fact that it is the most desirable method of managing organic waste. For more on the benefits of composting, see American Recycler and for an example of a successful, grassroots effort to increase composting, see Inside Schools.

Finally, the single greatest obstacle to reducing scarcity in land for waste management and increasing sustainability is the continued failure of people, particularly in wealthier nations, to simply reduce their consumption and waste generation. Lacking substantive mandates and restrictions forcing better environmental practices in regards to excessive waste production with a focus on minimization and prevention of increased waste, the considerable problems of waste management have increased substantially, thus increasing the necessity of finding solutions.

Approaches to Creating Greater Abundance

Despite the widespread general failings to combat the rising tide of waste, there have been numerous cases in which steps have successfully been taken towards better handling waste and preventing its accumulation. Moreover, a multitude of plans yet untested promise other methods of handling waste in a more sustainable fashion. Few of these plans have universal applications, and indeed, the challenges facing different locales vary widely; however, in every location, the utilization of a mixture of various solutions can lead to significant improvements.

Direct government regulation

One of the major problems related to waste in Western countries (if not indeed the main problem) is rampant over consumption and consumerism, coupled with a continual failure to adopt alternative waste management polices rather than simply dispose of the waste in landfills. One major Western city that has experienced considerable success in reversing this trend has done so via government mandates, bans, and incentives. Seattle, Washington had been at the fore-front of the recycling movement in the 1980’s, having committed to recycling at least 60% of the solid waste produced in the city. This ambitious goal led to considerable gains, but the percentage of solid waste recycled leveled off by 2000, peaking at 43%. Following studies by Richard Conlin on further reducing waste undertaken between 2006 and 2007; a new Zero Waste Strategy was established. The key components of the new effort were based on a cradle-to-cradle design, which emphasizes the reuse of all products. Towards this aim, Seattle’s government established financial incentives for companies that utilized recycled materials, mandated weekly collections of residential organic waste, and banned the use of Styrofoam while working towards a ban of plastic bags. Furthermore, they have worked with businesses to set up programs in which residents can return used pharmaceutical products, electronics, paint, and other hazardous waste materials. In addition, efforts have been made to achieve complete recycling of construction materials. This effort has led to substantial reductions of waste in Seattle, with the amount of waste sent to landfills decreasing from 438,000 tons in 2006 by over 10% in 2008 and 2009, which has amounted to an elimination of 86,000 tons of solid waste. Meanwhile, there are efforts towards mandating composting in multi-family dwellings and reducing the frequency of trash collection in order to further limit waste production.

The Intelligent Product System (IPS)

A far more drastic and long-term solution to the problems of waste production and management has been developed by a team led by Dr. Michael Braungart, who is currently a professor of Process Engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg. Called the Intelligent Product System, Braungart et al. propose a foundational shift from the current system of production and consumption that was primarily a result of the industrial revolution. Braungart traces the societal emphasis on production (and thus consumption) and the general lack of concern about waste treatment and management to the industrial revolution and puts forth a new, alternative system called IPS. Under IPS, all products are grouped into three distinct categories.

Consumption Products

Consumption products are those things which are completely exhausted after a single use, after which the waste is put into the environment (i.e. food, soap). Under IPS, all such products must be biodegradable or abiotically degradable, as well as being non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, non-mutagenic, and non-accumulative.

Service Products

The second category is that of service products. These include items which have traditionally been purchased by consumers to pro-vide continued services (i.e. cars, washing machines, televisions). Under IPS, such items are leased by consumers rather than purchased, and whenever such products outlive their use to the consumer, they are returned to “waste supermarkets.” These “waste supermarkets” act as warehouses for the separation of the components of the various materials which will be re-turned to manufacturers for reuse. Notably, this process differs from traditional recycling, which typically consists of downcycling, in which recycled materials are of lesser quality after each time they are recycled. Under IPS, this will no longer occur, as any products which cannot be reused without degradation in a closed-loop system between producers and consumers will be stored until processes which enable this are developed. However, Braungart does not outline the manner in which such storage facilities will be established or funded.

Unmarketable Products

The final category under IPS is a catch-all for everything no included in the former catgories. Unmarketable products include anything which cannot be consumed in a sustainable fashion, for example, aluminum production would have to cease because the waste produced cannot be managed sustainably. In the short-term under IPS, such products are to be stored, while in the long-term, all production of any such materials would cease completely.

Smarter Landfills

While the Western world’s primary effort must be directed at the reduction of waste (in addition to better management of waste) which continues to fill ever-expanding landfills, in much of the developing world, proper landfills have yet to be fully established. Instead, in places like India and Palestine, particularly in rural areas, waste is often dumped in whatever place is convenient and then burnt whenever the level of waste gets too high. Blame for this practice cannot be squarely placed upon those who dump their waste in such a fashion, as there is a critical lack of appropriate landfill sites in many of these areas.

In an effort to create landfills which will limit the practice of simply dumping waste randomly while simultaneously working to manage waste in a more sustainable manner in countries that frequently have limited resources to expend on waste management, two engineers in Palestine have created a scientific method of selecting ideal landfill sites.

In order to select a new landfill site in Palestine, the duo used geographic information system (GIS). GIS takes variables like topography, land use, road networks, water sources, and urban areas (taken from various governmental sources) and compiles them to select ideal locations for potential landfills. Admittedly, disposal of waste is the least desirable option for handling the issue of waste. However, before further steps can realistically be taken, it is critical that disposal be handled in a more sustainable manner in order to prevent excessive environmental damage in areas where further intensive efforts towards waste management are currently impractical.

GIS basically operates by taking the aforementioned variables into account while establishing specified buffers between the potential landfill and water sources, residential areas, and roads. Indeed, such criteria are good standards for landfill selection elsewhere, although varying levels of development and differing environmental situations will alter the manner in which the variables are utilized. However, in every situation, any landfill site should maintain the highest possible distance from developed areas, water sources, forested areas, and major roadways. In the case of Palestine, further consideration had to be made for the unique political situation, so the potential landfill sites indicated through the use of GIS were analyzed in respect to these issues in order to find the most suitable location.

The GIS system can be easily used for any area and thus provides a temporary option that can limit the environmental impact of waste disposal until a more ideal solution becomes practical, but usage of the system should become a standard practice in all countries, rather than primarily in developed states, where it is already used frequently.

Links and Stories

For more details on Seattle’s Zero Waste Strategy see
Waste Not: Seattle's Road to Zero Trash and for the actual legislation see Richard Conlin, developer of the Zero Waste Strategy. Seattle Resolution 30990.

For more information on IPS, including a detailed, 25-point criteria for meeting 5 specific goals, see
EPEA – The Intelligent Product System (IPS).

For more on GIS’s applications in waste management, see
Mahamid and Thawaba, for general info on GIS, see ESRI – What is GIS?. References


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