Waste disposal falls into three general categories: non-hazardous, hazardous and nuclear waste disposal. Non-hazardous waste includes household or office waste such as food, product containers, and waste that can be recycled. Hazardous waste includes industrial and residential chemicals, petroleum products and heavy metals. Nuclear waste may include spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor, medical nuclear waste or equipment used to handle radioactive materials. Improper disposal of waste can have serious effects.
The term non-hazardous waste is something of a misnomer--it simply means that the waste does not meet certain measures of hazard. Non-hazardous waste can still have negative impacts on human health and the environment since it nevertheless decays, harbouring significant amounts of bacteria and posing serious health risks to humans. Decomposing food waste can alter ecosystems by altering the eating patterns of local animals and polluting water and soil.
Hazardous waste is inherently dangerous to living creatures, damaging soil and water and killing local wildlife and fish; it can also affect crop growth and whether the produce can still be safely eaten. Heavy metal waste can have serious neurological effects if consumed or absorbed through the skin, and can contribute to the development of cancer, respiratory problems, neurological and developmental disorders and birth defects.
Radioactive waste represents what is, to many, the most frightening type of toxic waste. The negative effects of exposure to higher levels of radiation are well known, with cancer and death being the most obvious. In the case of improper disposal or storage of high level nuclear waste, the environmental risks are severe. Radioactivity cannot be purged; rather, it must dissipate over time, with high levels often taking thousands of years. Radiation can also alter cellular structure and enter the food chain. Fortunately, regulation and control of nuclear waste is extraordinarily strict and nuclear contamination extremely uncommon.
Air pollution is a problem without one specific source. Created by emissions from industrial plants, homes, cars, and businesses such as dry cleaners and printers, smog is the most obvious type of air pollution, simply because it is visible. Air pollution is also responsible for acid rain, greenhouse gases, and ozone depletion, and may also play a role in respiratory problems by exacerbating asthma, inflaming lung tissue, and reducing lung function.
The last few decades have seen an upswing in concern over environmental preservation and proper waste management. Environmental regulations have been tightened, both nationally and internationally. Efforts to develop more green technologies and create carbon neutral facilities have blossomed. A political party, the Green Party, emerged devoted to the enviroonmental cause, though its principles have been largely subsumed into the political doctrine of the Democratic Party.