Ethical Considerations in Waste Disposal

Updated April 17, 2017

Ethical waste management practices should be morally correct and perceived as fair and equitable by all segments of society. The true costs and liabilities of every phase of waste disposal should be identified. The general principles of the ethics of waste management are an offshoot of the principles of sustainable development, which have been formalised to a certain extent by a series of United Nations initiatives, beginning with the 1987 "Brundtland Report, Our Common Future."

Environmental Assessment

Ethical principles require that while a project is still in the planning stage, potential harmful effects of the waste to be produced during its lifetime should be assessed and minimised. It is the ethical responsibility of the proponent to identify all parties who could be affected, to inform them of the effects of the waste, to seek their input and consider it in the planning and implementation. Public hearings to explain the full life-cycle of the waste, and receive the input of the public, are very important.

Polluter Pays

One of the fundamental principles of ethical waste management is that the polluter pays for the waste management program as well as remediation, not the taxpayer. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the developer to demonstrate that a particular technology, practice or product is safe, and bear the costs of doing so. The developer is responsible for the full cost of a venture including waste management--this encourages efficiency, realistic allocation of costs and determines the true cost of goods or services. The Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) is widely recognised in international environmental law.

Future Generations

One of the principles of ethical waste disposal is that future generations should not bear an unfair burden when managing the waste generated by their forebears. While it is recognised that throughout history, benefits as well as liabilities have been passed on to successive generations, there are certain kinds of wastes that are toxic for an exceedingly long time and very expensive to manage safely. The generation producing the waste should engineer the disposal facilities such that they require no or minimal institutional control after closure. However, a consideration that runs counter to this requirement is that future generations may want to access the waste because they have either found a use for it, or discovered a way to render it harmless.

Future Societal Stability

The waste producer should not assume that a stable societal structure will be maintained throughout the period over which the waste is toxic and hazardous. Nuclear waste, for example, would stay toxic over tens of thousands of years, a time span over which civilisations have risen and disappeared. Over such time periods, a breakdown of society by war or some other upheaval would make engineering control or monitoring impossible. This re-emphasizes the requirement that the disposal site require minimal control after closure.

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About the Author

Nash Soonawala retired in 2004 after a 40-year career in the geological sciences. He now serves as a technical editor and writer. Soonawala holds Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in applied geophysics from McGill University in Montreal.