13.1: Environmental Concerns with Wastes

Managing Growing Waste Generation

An enormous quantity of wastes are generated and disposed of annually. Alarmingly, this quantity continues to increase on an annual basis. Industries generate and dispose over 7.6 billion tons of industrial solid wastes each year, and it is estimated that over 40 million tons of this waste is hazardous. Nuclear wastes as well as medical wastes are also increasing in quantity every year.

Generally speaking, developed nations generate more waste than developing nations due to higher rates of consumption. Not surprisingly, the United States generates more waste per capita than any other country. High waste per capita rates are also very common throughout Europe and developed nations in Asia and Oceania. In the United States, about 243 million tons (243 trillion kg) of MSW is generated per year, which is equal to about 4.3 pounds (1.95 kg) of waste per person per day. Nearly 34 percent of MSW is recovered and recycled or composted, approximately 12 percent is burned a combustion facilities, and the remaining 54 percent is disposed of in landfills. Waste stream percentages also vary widely by region. As an example, San Francisco, California captures and recycles nearly 75 percent of its waste material, whereas Houston, Texas recycles less than three percent.

With respect to waste mitigation options, landfilling is quickly evolving into a less desirable or feasible option. Landfill capacity in the United States has been declining primarily due to (a) older existing landfills that are increasingly reaching their authorized capacity, (b) the promulgation of stricter environmental regulations has made the permitting and siting of new landfills increasingly difficult, (c) public opposition (e.g. "Not In My Backyard" or NIMBYism) delays or, in many cases, prevents the approval of new landfills or expansion of existing facilities.

Effects of Improper Waste Disposal and Unauthorized Releases

Prior to the passage of environmental regulations, wastes were disposed improperly without due consideration of potential effects on the public health and the environment. This practice has led to numerous contaminated sites where soils and groundwater have been contaminated and pose risk to the public safety. Of more than 36,000 environmentally impacted candidate sites, there are more than 1,400 sites listed under the Superfund program National Priority List (NPL) which require immediate cleanup resulting from acute, imminent threats to environmental and human health. The USEPA identified about 2,500 additional contaminated sites that eventually require remediation. The United States Department of Defense maintains 19,000 sites, many of which have been extensively contaminated from a variety of uses and disposal practices. Further, approximately 400,000 underground storage tanks have been confirmed or are suspected to be leaking, contaminating underlying soils and groundwater. Over $10 billion (more than$25 billion in current dollars) were specifically allocated by CERCLA and subsequent amendments to mitigate impacted sites. However, the USEPA has estimated that the value of environmental remediation exceeds \$100 billion. Alarmingly, if past expenditures on NPL sites are extrapolated across remaining and proposed NPL sites, this total may be significantly higher – well into the trillions of dollars.

It is estimated that more than 4,700 facilities in the United States currently treat, store or dispose of hazardous wastes. Of these, about 3,700 facilities that house approximately 64,000 solid waste management units (SWMUs) may require corrective action. Accidental spillage of hazardous wastes and nuclear materials due to anthropogenic operations or natural disasters has also caused enormous environmental damage as evidenced by the events such as the facility failure in Chernobyl, Ukraine (formerly USSR) in 1986, the effects of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005, and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima, Japan.