Municipal solid waste disposal methods

Written by j.m. willhite
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Municipal solid waste disposal methods
Municipal waste is commonly known as refuse, trash or garbage. (Image by, courtesy of James Emery)

Over time, the dilemma of how to dispose of trash, also known as refuse, has become increasingly difficult to solve with an ever-growing population and the ongoing production of goods from virgin materials. Each year, the United States alone produces more tover 200 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW), commonly called trash or garbage. There are currently five methods by which we dispose of municipal solid waste: incineration (or combustion), landfilling, composting, recycling and reduction.


Incineration is a process by which solid waste is burnt at a high temperature in order to reduce overall waste volume. The burning process is completely controlled and as part of that process, both disease-causing bacteria and chemical compounds are destroyed. The incineration process produces harmful by-products such as carbon dioxide and other various gaseous pollutants. However, it should be noted that there are emissions controls in place which aid with monitoring and controlling the production of these pollutants. The process also produces less harmful, non-gaseous products such as unburned solid residue and fly ash. Nearly a quarter of all incinerators in the United States utilise fuel derived from the burnt waste, known as refuse derived fuel (RDF).


The use of disposing of trash in landfills is by far the most common form of municipal waste disposal. It is estimated that nearly 90 per cent of the nation's trash is disposed of in this manner. Landfills must meet and operate under strict regulations set by the federal government. Items such as paints, motor oil, hazardous chemicals and pesticides are just a few of the unsafe items that are banned from landfills. Types of organic and inorganic waste that end up at the landfill commonly originate as household and industrial (or business) waste.


Recycling is the process of sorting, cleaning and reusing materials that otherwise would be discarded as waste. Materials that are commonly sorted out for recycling include, but are not limited to, paper, plastic, metals and glass. The recycling process follows a loop, of sorts. First there is the collection process. The collection process starts when citizens drop off their recyclables at recycling centres, kerbside collection, buy-back or deposit-refund programs. These items are then sent to a recovery facility where they are prepped for use in the manufacturing process. Next follows the manufacturing process itself. And, finally, the purchasing of recycled items by the consumer completes the loop. The recycling process not only saves energy and conserves natural resources, but it reduces the amount of waste in landfills.


Composting is a process that uses oxygen, bacteria and fungi to break down organic matter for purpose of making a material to be used for growing vegetation or as a soil supplement. Presorted organic material is placed in tracks, or deposited into premade systems, for the purpose of promoting decomposition. The material is combined with other filler materials, such as wood chips, in order to speed up the decomposition process. The material is degraded to the point of becoming humus, at which point it contains proper amounts of phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen. The entire process generally takes three to four weeks, after which time the resulting compost can be collected, packaged and marketed to consumers.


Reduction essentially stops the waste production process before it starts. Preventing waste requires that materials produced for consumption be manufactured in ways that reduce their toxicity and/or environmental impact. Following the idea of reduction, consumers are encouraged to buy in bulk and reduce their consumption of single-use items like nonrechargeable batteries and plastic bottled water. Programs that require citizens to pay for each bag of trash thrown out are another way of promoting a more responsible approach to waste reduction.

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