An integrated waste management strategy includes three main components
- Source reduction
Source reduction is one of the fundamental ways to reduce waste. This can be done by using less material when making a product, reuse of products on site, designing products or packaging to reduce their quantity. On an individual level we can reduce the use of unnecessary items while shopping, buy items with minimal packaging, avoid buying disposable items and also avoid asking for plastic carry bags.
Recycling is reusing some components of the waste that may have some economic value. Recycling has readily visible benefits such as conservation of resources reduction in energy used during manufacture and reducing pollution levels. Some materials such as aluminum and steel can be recycled many times. Metal, paper, glass and plastics are recyclable. Mining of new aluminum is expensive and hence recycled aluminum has a strong market and plays a significant role in the aluminum industry. Paper recycling can also help preserve forests as it takes about 17 trees to make one ton of paper. Crushed glass (cullet) reduces the energy required to manufacture new glass by 50 percent. Cullet lowers the temperature requirement of the glassmaking process thus conserving energy and reducing air pollution.
However even if recycling is a viable alternative, it presents several problems. The problems associated with recycling are either technical or economical. Plastics are difficult to recycle because of the different types of polymer resins used in their production. Since each type has its own chemical makeup different plastics cannot be recycled together. Thus separation of different plastics before recycling is necessary. Similarly in recycled paper the fibers are weakened and it is difficult to control the colour of the recycled product. Recycled paper is banned for use in food containers to prevent the possibility of contamination. It very often costs less to transport raw paper pulp than scrap paper. Collection, sorting and transport account for about 90 percent of the cost of paper recycling.
The processes of pulping, deinking and screening wastepaper are generally more expensive than making paper from virgin wood or cellulose fibers. Very often thus recycled paper is more expensive than virgin paper. However as technology improves the cost will come down.
Disposal of solid waste is done most commonly through a sanitary landfill or through incineration. A modern sanitary landfill is a depression in an impermeable soil layer that is lined with an impermeable membrane. The three key characteristics of a municipal sanitary landfill that distinguish it from an open dump are:
- Solid waste is placed in a suitably selected and prepared landfill site in a carefully prescribed manner.
- The waste material is spread out and compacted with appropriate heavy machinery.
- The waste is covered each day with a layer of compacted soil. The problem with older landfills are associated with groundwater pollution. Pollutants seeping out from the bottom of a sanitary landfill (leachates) very often percolate down to the groundwater aquifer no matter how thick the underlying soil layer. Today it is essential to have suitable bottom liners and leachate collection systems along with the installation of monitoring systems to detect groundwater pollution.
The organic material in the buried solid waste will decompose due to the action of microorganisms. At first the waste decomposes aerobically until the oxygen that was present in the freshly placed fill is used up by the aerobic microorganisms. The anerobes take over producing methane which is poisonous and highly explosive when mixed with air in concentrations between 5 and 15 percent. The movement of gas can be controlled by providing impermeable barriers in the landfill. A venting system to collect the blocked gas and vent it to the surface where it can be safely diluted and dispersed into the atmosphere is thus a necessary component of the design of sanitary landfills.
Even though landfilling is an economic alternative for solid waste disposal, it has become increasingly difficult to find suitable landfilling sites that are within economic hauling distance and very often citizens do not want landfills in their vicinity. Another reason is that no matter how well engineered the design and operation may be, there is always the danger of some environmental damage in the form of leakage of leachates. Incineration is the process of burning municipal solid waste in a properly designed furnace under suitable temperature and operating conditions. Incineration is a chemical process in which the combustible portion of the waste is combined with oxygen forming carbon dioxide and water, which are released into the atmosphere.
This chemical reaction called oxidation results in the release of heat. For complete oxidation the waste must be mixed with appropriate volumes of air at a temperature of about 815o C for about one hour.
Incineration can reduce the municipal solid waste by about 90 percent in volume and 75 percent in weight. The risks of incineration however involve airquality problems and toxicity and disposal of the fly and bottom ash produced during the incineration process. Fly ash consists of finely divided particulate matter, including cinders, mineral dust and soot. Most of the incinerator ash is bottom ash while the remainder is fly ash. The possible presence of heavy metals in incinerator ash can be harmful. Thus toxic products and materials containing heavy metals (for example batteries and plastics) should be segregated.
Thus extensive air pollution control equipment and high-level technical supervision and skilled employees for proper operation and maintenance is required. Thus while sanitary landfills and incinerators have their own advantages and disadvantages, the most effective method of solid waste management is source reduction and recycling.
Nature has perfect solutions for managing the waste it creates, if left undisturbed. The biogeochemical cycles are designed to clear the waste material produced by animals and plants. We can mimic the same methods that are present in nature. All dead and dry leaves and twigs decompose and are broken down by organisms such as worms and insects, and is finally broken down by bacteria and fungi, to form a dark rich soil-like material called compost.