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Most people rarely give a second thought to garbage. We throw away what we don't need, and it is "out of sight, out of mind." But were the waste-management industry to grind to a halt, Americans would quickly discover how much our way of life has come to depend on someone swiftly and safely removing the waste we produce.
Centuries ago, waste management wasn't much of an issue. Relatively few people inhabited the earth. Trees were cut for fuel and burned without too much adverse effect, and smoke from widely scattered fires dissipated in the atmosphere. Sewage and garbage could be disposed of by individuals on their own property. City efforts to deal with residents' waste go back to at least 500 B.C., when the first known dump was created outside of Athens. The ancient Romans created basic sewer systems. They also had trenches outside of cities where people threw trash, a practice that periodically led to epidemic diseases. As early as 1300, London began suffering ill effects from the widespread use of coal as a fuel.
With the advent of the industrial revolution in England in the mid-1700s, the problems of managing wastes grew far more serious. City populations swelled as people were drawn from rural areas to work in factories. This generated unprecedented quantities of concentrated garbage, sewage, and other wastes. Factories churned out tons of solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes, in the form of unused or spent manufacturing materials and chemicals, wastewater produced during the manufacturing process, and air emissions (smoke) from burning coal and wastes. By the 1800s, smog engulfed London and all manner of wastes were dumped into the Thames River. Thousands of people became ill with typhoid fever when the drinking-water supply became contaminated.
The United States experienced the same types of problems as industrialization grew in the 1800s and early 1900s. Factories sprang up, urban populations exploded, and wastes began to grow out of control. Cities began to experiment with methods of handling the higher volumes of garbage, including burning it in incinerators. By the early 1900s, there were about 300 incinerators in North America. Municipalities also created landfills, basically dumping the week's trash in a mound, compressing it, covering it with dirt, and repeating the process with the next week's load of trash. Early landfills were havens for rats and often leaked wastes into surrounding land and water, including groundwater used for drinking.
Alarm about municipal and industrial waste-handling practices climbed steadily in the early part of the 20th century. Scientists and other experts tried to warn others that poor waste management was a threat to human health and safety. It also was destroying the environment. Not until after World War II, however, did the general public begin to see the air, water, and land as deteriorating because of pollutants. Lakes, streams, and rivers were becoming choked with chemicals that were killing off fish and other wildlife. Burning of wastes containing toxic chemicals, such as mercury, was seriously contaminating the air, leading to an increase in respiratory problems and other ailments. Insecticides, toxic chemicals, and other lethal substances were finding their way into soil used for agriculture and water used for drinking.
Finally, in the mid-1960s, the federal government took action. Studies about industrial and municipal waste handling were conducted. Funds were made available to states to develop waste-handling strategies for their municipalities and industries. The first waste-management legislation was passed in 1965. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created in 1970 to implement waste handling and other environmental regulations. Laws, such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1970 and its 1976 amendments, defined different types of wastes and described minimum actions for waste handling. Stricter laws about what types of wastes industry could discharge, what types of materials they could no longer use, how the wastes had to be disposed of, as well as rules about municipal landfills, incinerators, and other matters fueled the growing waste-management industry.
Today, waste management is a major U.S. industry, as well as the largest and fastest-growing part of the environmental industry. Waste primarily falls into two categories: hazardous and nonhazardous. Both include a wide variety of materials, but generally, hazardous waste falls under stricter regulations and covers a range of chemical and other wastes. Nonhazardous waste is known as municipal solid waste (MSW) and is what we think of as garbage, including household waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that in 2008 more than 250 million tons of MSW were generated before recycling in the United States. Between 1999 and 2007, the quantity of RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act)-classified hazardous wastes generated decreased by 23 percent from 36.1 million tons (MT) to 27.8 MT, according to the EPA.
Waste management covers a wide range of public and private efforts to cut the volume of solid, liquid, and gaseous wastes; reduce waste toxicity; and collect, process, and recycle or dispose of waste. As the waste management industry has grown, our handling of waste has improved, although some would say not enough to keep up with the increasing amount of waste we produce. Recycling efforts in 2008 kept nearly 83 million tons of MSW from reaching incinerators and landfills, an increase of more than 69 million tons from 1980. The waste management industry is vital to finding a balance between our push for a cleaner environment and our increased generation of waste. Paper, including containers and packaging, made up the largest volume of MSW, accounting for 31 percent of the total waste generated, according to the EPA. Yard waste was next at 13.2 percent, followed by food waste at 12.7 percent and plastics at 12 percent.
Industrial solid waste (ISW) has long been, and continues to be, the single biggest category of waste. The EPA reports that approximately 7.6 billion tons of ISW result from manufacturing and processing activities each year. Every manufacturing process produces wastes, but the biggest generators include chemical companies, paper and food manufacturers, utilities, leather, plastic, and metals manufacturers, textile manufacturers, petroleum companies, and machinery manufacturers. As a result of environmental legislation and public outcry during the last 30 years, U.S. industry has dramatically changed the way it handles solid waste. Their methods include reducing the amount of waste generated, such as by changing a manufacturing process, treating waste to make it less toxic to the environment, reusing and recycling process wastes, hiring waste-management firms and consultants to help them improve their waste-handling activities, and opening their facilities to state and local environmental and health inspectors, and sometimes the public.
In recent years, pressure from consumers has had a major impact on how industry handles its waste. No manufacturer wants to be known as a polluter. Today, companies such as Polaroid, 3M Company, Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto, ExxonMobil Corporation, Merck, AT&T, and S.C. Johnson have developed multimillion-dollar waste management strategies to comply with environmental regulations.
Legally, hazardous waste is different from solid waste. Hazardous wastes are toxic substances posing a serious threat to human health or the environment. Exact lists of hazardous substances differ, and the amount of a hazardous substance in the air, soil, or water that is acceptable to specific federal, state, or local authorities may differ, or even change, in quantity over the years. However, hazardous wastes typically encompass chemicals and chemical compounds with links or suspected links to cancer, heart disease, respiratory ailments, and other serious health problems. For example, one common hazardous waste is benzene, a component in fuel. It has been identified as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). Other hazardous wastes include solvents used in paint and other manufacturing and in service operations like dry cleaners, certain metals from manufacturing processes, chemicals like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other substances. A special category of hazardous waste is radioactive waste. Disposal of radioactive waste is a unique problem because it can remain hazardous for hundreds of years.
Nearly every industry produces hazardous waste, from food, textiles, metals, petroleum, plastics, and paper manufacturing to dry cleaning services, printing, and more. According to the EPA nearly 280 million tons of the total 13 billion tons of agricultural, commercial, industrial, and household waste generated in the United States classify as hazardous. Basic chemical manufacturing comprises the majority of the waste produced, with petroleum and coal products manufacturing following. Old municipal landfills have mixtures of hazardous and solid wastes, and households continue to produce small quantities of hazardous wastes such as those from household cleaning products. There are many municipal and industrial hazardous waste sites in the United States. In addition, the U.S. federal government owns many hazardous waste sites, including in-use and closed military bases, military production sites, and other sources. (Domestic military bases produce more hazardous waste than the top five chemical companies.) Superfund cleanup sites are high-priority and low-priority hazardous waste sites specifically targeted for cleanup by the federal government under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. It is estimated that more than 14.5 million people live within one mile of a Superfund site.
Great strides have been made in waste management in the last 30 years. But hundreds of millions of tons of municipal and industrial solid and hazardous wastes continue to be generated every year. Properly handling all the waste is the job of the waste management industry.