Earth, Climate & Environment

Solid Waste

Solid wastes are unwanted solid materials such as garbage, paper, plastics and other synthetic materials, metals, and wood. Billions of tons of solid waste are thrown out annually.

Areas where wastes are buried, called landfills, are the cheapest and most common disposal method for solid wastes worldwide. But landfills quickly become overfilled and may contaminate air, soil, and water. Incineration, or burning, of waste reduces the volume of solid waste but produces dense ashen wastes (some of which become airborne) that often contain dangerous concentrations of hazardous materials such as heavy metals and toxic compounds. Composting, using natural biological processes to speed the decomposition of organic wastes, is an effective strategy for dealing with organic garbage and produces a material that can be used as a natural fertilizer. Recycling, extracting and reusing certain waste materials, has become an important part of municipal solid waste strategies in developed countries. Recycling also plays a significant, informal role in solid waste management for many Asian countries, such as India, where organized waste-pickers comb streets and dumps for items such as plastics, which they use or resell.

Expanding recycling programs worldwide can help reduce solid waste pollution, but the key to solving severe solid waste problems lies in reducing the amount of waste generated. Waste prevention, or source reduction, such as altering the way products are designed or manufactured to make them easier to reuse, reduces the high costs associated with environmental pollution.