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Report on the Environment

Waste

What are the trends in wastes and their effects on human health and the environment?

Every resident, organization, and human activity in the U.S. generates some type of waste. Many different types of waste are generated, including municipal solid waste, agricultural and animal waste, medical waste, radioactive waste, hazardous waste, industrial non-hazardous waste, construction and demolition debris, extraction and mining waste, oil and gas production waste, fossil fuel combustion waste, and sewage sludge (see the glossary for detailed descriptions of these wastes). In general, waste generation represents inefficient use of materials. These materials, some of which are hazardous, must be managed through reuse, recycling, storage, treatment, and disposal. Hazardous wastes are either specifically listed as hazardous by EPA or a state, or exhibit one or more of the following characteristics: ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity, or toxicity. Generation and management of hazardous wastes have the potential to contaminate land, air, and water and negatively affect human health and environmental conditions. Tracking trends in the quantity, composition, and effects of these materials provides insight into the efficiency with which the nation uses (and reuses) materials and resources and provides a means to better understand the effects of wastes on human health and ecological condition.

The amount of waste produced is influenced by economic activity, consumption, and population growth. Affluent societies, such as the U.S., generally produce large amounts of municipal solid waste (e.g., food wastes, packaged goods, disposable goods, used electronics) and commercial and industrial wastes (e.g., demolition debris, incineration residues, refinery sludges). Among industrialized nations, the U.S. generates the largest amounts of municipal solid waste per person on a daily basis.16

Current approaches to waste management evolved primarily due to health concerns and odor control. Waste often was deposited outside developed areas on nearby lands, frequently wetlands. Excavation of land specifically for deposition of wastes followed, often accompanied by burning of wastes to reduce volume, a practice eventually determined to be a contributor to degraded air quality in urban areas. Burning of wastes occurred at multiple levels, from backyard burning to large, open-burning dumps of municipal solid wastes to onsite burning of commercial and industrial wastes. Land disposal created problems such as ground water contamination, methane gas formation and migration, and disease vector hazards.

The amount of land being used to manage the many types of waste generated is not known. Most municipal solid wastes and hazardous wastes are managed in land disposal units. Land disposal of hazardous wastes includes landfills, surface impoundments, land treatment, land farming, and underground injection. Modern landfill facilities are engineered with containment systems and monitoring programs. (Waste management practices prior to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations left legacies of contaminated lands in many cases, which are addressed in the question “What are the trends in contaminated land and their effects on human health and the environment?”.

Landfills represent one of the largest human-related sources of methane gas in the U.S. Between 1997 and 2003, landfills accounted for slightly more than one-fourth of the estimated methane emissions attributed to human activity.17 Methane gas is released as wastes decompose, as a function of the total amount and makeup of the wastes as well as management facility location, design, and practices.18 EPA is interested because gas emissions can be affected by recycling and changing product use. For example, recycling aluminum or office paper can reduce environmental effects (e.g., by reducing the need to mine bauxite or harvest trees), and it will also create positive environmental benefits, such as reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gases (e.g., emissions associated with the production of products from virgin materials).19

Although data do not exist to directly link trends in waste with effects on human health and the environment, the management of waste may result in waste and chemicals in waste entering the environment. Hazardous waste, by definition, has the potential to negatively affect human health and the environment, which is why it is so strictly regulated. The effects associated with waste vary widely and are influenced by the substances or chemicals found in waste and how they are managed. For chemicals found in waste, EPA has been tracking a list of Priority Chemicals. These Priority Chemicals are documented contaminants of air, land, water, plants, and animals. Between 1991 and 2001, quantities of 17 of the Priority Chemicals were reduced by more than 50 percent.20,21

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