Environmental Costs of Waste

by Cinthya Campos
(May 2013)

This essay focuses on the environmental costs of waste management and how various forms of waste are being treated in order to ensure a more sustainable future. As the population continues to rapidly grow, so have the large quantities of waste that must be disposed of. In order to protect the water and atmospheric resources it is necessary to create disposal methods that will not harm the environment, unlike traditional methods such as land-filling and incineration.

What has been the problem with waste? The problem is us.

This image shows the result of poor waste management that has resulted in various forms of pollution.

Throughout centuries people have continued to dispose of materials that have been non-hazardous as well as hazardous without concern. Environmental impacts have become extremely obvious and have been the result of our inability to properly dispose of waste. The entire concept of waste should be treated as the circle of life in which recycling is a key essential. Yet it has become the opposite of this concept since today’s world revolves on man-made systems which emphasize the economic value of materials and energy, and where production and consumption are the dominant economic activities (Chicago Architecture Foundation). As the world has evolved, there has been a lack of concern for the well being of the environment and humans are currently destroying its beauty with waste landfills and contaminating it with greenhouse gas emissions.

There are two main waste disposal methods used within Waste Management. These methods are known as incineration and landfill disposal. Yet these methods require pricey technology as well as high energy inputs, and thus they are both very expensive and energy inefficient. In the long run, the financial costs of managing the long-term environmental impacts of waste disposal are much higher than what is actually being charged for the disposal processes of waste (Chicago Architecture Foundation). As a result it has been established that waste disposal cannot be economically sustained and has produced negative outcomes.

Waste disposal in landfills deeply affects the environment, more so than through the process of incineration. This is because there is much more solid waste ending up in landfills instead of incinerators. Since landfills are considered to be the cheapest, most cost-effective, and simplest method to use it is where the majority of waste will end up going (Chicago Architecture Foundation). Although it is currently the cheapest method of disposing waste, the initial low price benefits does not allow for consideration of the environmental impacts of waste disposal through the process of landfills. Landfills pollute the underground water by leaching toxic substances from certain types of garbage into the ground; the process is quickened through rain fall (Ally). Another environmental impact to take into consideration is the transportation of the waste disposal. Since it requires traveling long distances to collect and dispose of the waste in order to reach the landfills there is an increase in the amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. In the city of Chicago alone it is estimated that 3.4 million tons of waste end up in landfills every year (Chicago Architecture foundation). As a result the city of Chicago itself spends about $231 per ton of trash disposal, which places it as the highest paying city in the US because of the inefficient pickup route and long travel distances to landfills (Chicago Architecture Foundation). This is a problem that requires strict action not only because it’s hurting our pockets but it’s also hurting our environment. Inefficiently hauling and disposing of waste results in the releases of significant amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, mostly generated by trucks that service both residential and commercial buildings throughout the Chicago area (Chicago Architecture foundation).

Unlike landfills, process of incineration combustible waste is handled through the process of thermal destruction. This process requires high tech machinery that contains different classifications and regulations. Each classification has different limits on the emission it can produce. On May 2, 1994 In the case of the City of Chicago v. the Environmental Defense Fund, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the ash from incineration of municipal solid waste was subject to the strict regulatory requirements since it pertained to hazardous wastes according to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (F. Zimmerman). The results of the case study showed that ash from Chicago’s incinerator had been burning 13,000 tons of trash daily that was contaminated with cadmium and lead. The Environmental Defense Fund stated that the city was not properly disposing of the ash and enforced Chicago, as well as 125 other plants in the states, to follow stricter regulations and do a better job of keeping up to code through proper disposal of ash by storing it in special hazardous waste landfills (F. Zimmerman).

The environment is the most precious gem we have been given. In order to cherish it we must continue to create action plans in order to protect it rather than destroy it. The best solutions towards fighting the evils of waste are recycling, minimizing waste, and waste processing. Despite the challenges, the overall goal should be waste minimization. This is why recycling and waste processing play an important role. Since the flow of materials from energy producers and consumers to processors and recyclers must be encouraged to occur as they would in the natural ecosystems, the elements of the system should be located in close proximity to one another (Walls). This must occur in order to create an environmental friendly world when it comes to the overall topic of waste.