An Introduction to Solid Waste Management

Know the key objectives and elements of this important service

Workers at a recycling facility inspecting aluminum can bin
moodboard, Getty Images

Solid waste management is an essential service in any society. Before introducing the process, however, let's start with a discussion of the material being managed—solid waste.

Solid waste refers to the range of garbage materials—arising from animal and human activities—that are discarded as unwanted and useless. Solid waste is generated from industrial, residential, and commercial activities in a given area, and may be handled in a variety of ways. As such, landfills are typically classified as sanitary, municipal, construction and demolition, or industrial waste sites. 

Waste can be categorized based on material, such as plastic, paper, glass, metal, and organic waste. Categorization may also be based on hazard potential, including radioactive, flammable, infectious, toxic, or non-toxic wastes. Categories may also pertain to the origin of the waste, whether industrial, domestic, commercial, institutional, or construction and demolition.

Regardless of the origin, content, or hazard potential, solid waste must be managed systematically to ensure environmental best practices. As solid waste management is a critical aspect of environmental hygiene, it must be incorporated into environmental planning.

North American Waste Generation: Key Insights

  • The North American region generates the highest average amount of waste per capita, at 2.21 kilograms per day, or 4.87 pounds per day. Total waste produced in 2016 was 289 million tonnes, or 318.7 tons.
  • Waste collection coverage in North America is nearly universal, at 99.7%. Bermuda represents the only gap in coverage.
  • More than 55% of waste in North America comprises recyclables, including paper, cardboard, plastic, metal, and glass.
  • Just over half (54%) of the waste in North America is disposed of at sanitary landfills, while one-third is recycled.

What Is Solid Waste Management?

Solid waste management is defined as the discipline associated with control of generation, storage, collection, transport or transfer, processing and disposal of solid waste materials in a way that best addresses the range of public health, conservation, economic, aesthetic, engineering, and other environmental considerations.

In its scope, solid waste management includes planning, administrative, financial, engineering, and legal functions. Solutions might include complex inter-disciplinary relations among fields such as public health, city and regional planning, political science, geography, sociology, economics, communication and conservation, demography, engineering, and material sciences.

Solid waste management practices can differ for residential and industrial producers, for urban and rural areas, and for developed and developing nations. The administration of non-hazardous waste in metropolitan areas is the job of local government authorities. On the other hand, the management of hazardous waste materials is typically the responsibility of those who generate it, as subject to local, national, and even international authorities.

Objectives of Waste Management

The primary goal of solid waste management is reducing and eliminating adverse impacts of waste materials on human health and the environment to support economic development and superior quality of life. This is to be done in the most efficient manner possible, to keep costs low and prevent waste buildup.

6 Functional Elements of the Waste Management System

There are six functional components of the waste management system, as outlined below:

  1. Waste generation: This encompasses any activities involved in identifying materials that are no longer usable and are either gathered for systematic disposal or thrown away.
  2. Onsite handling, storage, and processing: This relates to activities at the point of waste generation, which facilitate easier collection. For example, waste bins are placed at sites that generate sufficient waste. 
  3. Waste collection: A crucial phase of waste management, this includes activities such as placing waste collection bins, collecting waste from those bins, and accumulating trash in the location where the collection vehicles are emptied. Although the collection phase involves transportation, this is typically not the main stage of waste transportation.  
  4. Waste transfer and transport: These are the activities involved in moving waste from the local waste collection locations to the regional waste disposal site in large waste transport vehicles.
  5. Waste processing and recovery: This refers to the facilities, equipment, and techniques employed to recover reusable or recyclable materials from the waste stream and to improve the effectiveness of other functional elements of waste management.
  6. Disposal: The final stage of waste management. It involves the activities aimed at the systematic disposal of waste materials in locations such as landfills or waste-to-energy facilities

Integrated Solid Waste Management (ISWM)

As the field of solid waste management advances, solutions are being looked at more systematically and holistically. ISWM, for example, is an increasingly important term in the field of waste management. It refers to the selection and use of appropriate management programs, technologies, and techniques to achieve particular waste management goals and objectives. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that ISWM is composed of waste source reduction, recycling, waste combustion, and landfills. These activities can be done in either an interactive or hierarchical way. 

In closing, it is important to stress that better solid waste management programs are urgently needed in some countries. Only about half of the waste generated in cities and one-quarter of what is produced in rural areas is collected. Internationally, the World Bank warns that global waste could increase from 2016 to 2050 by 70% in a business-as-usual scenario. Ongoing efforts to improve the waste management system are an important part of preserving a healthy human and ecological future.