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Waste, Waste Management,

and Waste Prevention

An American Annual Waste Sampler:

  • Every year, the United States generates approximately 236 million tons of "trash"-- about 4.5 pounds per person per day. This number is far more than any other nation in the world.

  • 5.7 million tons of carpet are sent to landfills—all of it could be recycled

  • 19 billion pounds of polystyrene peanuts (Styrofoam) dumped—it never degrades

  • 35 billion plastic bottles

  • 40 billion plastic knives, forks and spoons

  • 4.5 million tons of office paper

  • Enough aluminum to rebuild the entire commercial air fleet four times over

  • Enough steel to level and restore Manhattan

  • Enough wood to heat 50 million homes for twenty years

  • Enough plastic wrap to shrink-wrap Texas

  • Plastic waste is so plentiful and so carelessly treated that 92 percent of Americans have potentially harmful plastic chemicals in their urine

  • 10 percent of the world oil supply is used to make and transport disposable plastics

  • Growing, shipping, and selling food destined to be thrown away uses more energy than is currently produced by offshore oil drilling

  • No less than 28 billion pounds of food are thrown away, about 25 percent of the American food supply

(Edward Humes, Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, 2012)

What Do We Mean by Waste?

A good framework for understanding what we mean by the term waste comes from The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1976. The RCRA states that solid waste means any garbage or refuse, sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities. Nearly everything we do leaves behind some kind of waste.This definition of solid waste includes wastes that are physically solid but also liquid, semi-solid, or gaseous. Some of these wastes are additionally classified as being hazardous (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017).

Waste can be classified by its source in the following categories (


     1. Municipal sources of waste include garbage or trash from households, schools, offices, market places, restaurants and other public places. Garbage (organic waste) includes food waste, fruit and vegetable peels, flower trimmings and even dog poop. These substances are biodegradable (meaning they are easily broken down by other organisms over time). Trash is the dry component of waste that is unlikely to become putrid-smelling. The main types of trash are:

  • Glass products (including jars, broken bottles, beer and wine bottles)

  • Paper products (including books, newspapers, magazines, and cardboard boxes – the largest individual source)

  • Plastic products (including plastic bags, water bottles, rubber bags and plastic wrappers)

  • Metal (mainly aluminum) products (including cans from soda drink, fruit and vegetable cans, appliances, automobiles)

  • Textile products (including clothing and linens)

We pay most of our attention in the United States to municipal sources of waste, although it is a relatively small part (less than 5 percent) of the overall waste we generate. Almost 90 percent of waste comes from the agricultural and mining industries.

     2. Mining sources of waste. Mining nearly always generates substantial waste, whether the material being mined is coal, clay, sand, gravel, building stone, or metallic ore. Early mining concentrated on the richest lodes of minerals. Because modern methods of mining are more efficient, they can extract the desired minerals from veins that are less rich. However, much more waste is produced in the process.


     3. Agricultural sources of waste include waste generated by agricultural activities, such as in horticulture, fruit growing, seed growing, livestock breeding, market gardens and seedling nurseries. Waste items in this group include animal manure, empty pesticide containers, old silage wrap, out of date medicines and wormers, used tires, and corn husks.


     4. Medical sources of waste refers to waste produced from health care facilities, such as hospitals, clinics, surgical theaters, veterinary hospitals and labs. They often are classified as hazardous  waste rather than general waste. Items in this group include surgical items, pharmaceuticals, blood, body parts, wound dressing materials, needles and syringes.


     5. Industrial sources of waste include unused portions of products made in industrial settings, including glass, leather, textile, food, electronics, plastic and metal products. Industrial operations have produced large quantities of hazardous waste for hundreds of years. Some hazardous wastes, such as mercury and dioxins, may be released as gases or vapors. Many hazardous industrial wastes are in liquid form. One of the greatest risks is that these wastes will contaminate water supplies.


     6. Construction/demolition sources of waste result from the construction of roads and buildings. Sometimes old buildings and structures are demolished to make space for new ones. This is particularly common in old cities that are modernizing. This is called demolition waste. Waste items include concrete debris, wood, earth, huge package boxes and plastics from the building materials and the like.


     7. Electronic sources of waste results from electronic and electrical devices and includes DVD and music players, televisions, telephones, computers, vacuum cleaners and all other electrical devices. These are also called e-waste, e-scrap, or waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE).


Hazardous waste is best considered as a separate category although any of the aforementioned sources can produce materials considered harmful or potentially harmful to human health or the environment. For example, certain mining techniques utilize toxic chemicals. Piles of mining and metal-processing waste, known as waste rock and tailings, may contain hazardous substances. Because of a reaction with the oxygen in the air, large amounts of toxic acids may form in waste rock and tailings and leach into surface waters. Many types of waste in agricultural, industrial, and medical settings is defined as being hazardous.

An especially dangerous type of waste is radioactive waste. Radioactive waste is usually a by-product of nuclear power generation and other applications of nuclear fission or nuclear technology, such as research and medicine. Radioactive waste is hazardous to most forms of life and the environment, and is regulated by government agencies in order to protect human health and the environment ( Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.

The term human waste refers to human excreta that are the byproducts of digestion, i.e. urine and feces, with or without water being mixed in. In the popular media, it may also be used to refer to:

  • Sewage, which is water-carried waste – it is more than 99 percent water - intended for removal from a community; also referred to as domestic wastewater or municipal wastewater, it can be classified by its physical, chemical, toxic, or biological status ( It includes “all the wastes sent into the sewer from drains and toilets: industrial wastes, hospital wastes, commercial wastes, human excreta, stormwater runoff, and every other kind of hazardous, toxic, and biological waste material produced in a municipality and carried away from its source via the sewer (

  • Sewage sludge is a semi-liquid residue that settles to the bottom of canals and pipes carrying sewage or industrial wastewaters, or in the bottom of tanks used in treating wastewaters ( It is a heterogeneous mix of hazardous materials; it is what remains after sewage has been treated and pollutants such as oil, grease, organics (e.g., nitrogen and phosphorous), suspendable solids, and settleable matter have been removed. However, most organic chemical compounds are not removed. What is not removed by treatment or partitioned into the wastewater is found in sewage sludge (

       The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Targeted Sewage Sludge Survey (2009)                   detected high concentrations of toxic contaminants in sewage sludge, specifically of toxic                         contaminants with heavy metals, steroids and pharmaceuticals, including the antibacterials,                       triclocarban and triclosan…antibiotics, disinfectants, antimicrobials, steroids, endocrine disrupting             chemicals and other anthropogenic drugs. The majority of sewage sludge produced in wastewater           treatment plants in the United States is disposed of on land, primarily agricultural land. This highly            controversial practice is supported by the federal government and regulated by the EPA                            (

  • Blackwater is used to describe wastewater containing feces, urine and flushwater from flush toilets along with anal cleansing water (if water is used for cleansing) or toilet paper. Blackwater is to be distinguished from greywater which is the wastewater generated from washing food, clothes and dishware, as well as from bathing, but not from toilets (


Human waste is considered a biowaste, as it is a vector for both viral and bacterial diseases. It can be a serious health hazard if it gets into sources of drinking water. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that nearly 2.2 million people die annually from diseases caused by contaminated water. A major accomplishment of human civilization has been the reduction of disease transmission via human waste through the practice of hygiene and sanitation, which can employ a variety of different technologies (

The way that human waste is collected, treated, and disposed of varies with the kind of sanitation system in use and the kind of toilet used. In developing countries, people often have to resort to open defecation in the natural environment. In developed countries most people use flush toilets where the human waste is mixed with water and stored in septic tanks (often used in rural areas) or sent through sewer pipes to be transported to sewage treatment plants (typical in urban areas). Children's excreta is often disposed of in diapers and mixed with municipal solid waste. Diapers are also sometimes dumped directly into the environment, leading to public health risks (

A wastewater (sewage) treatment plant


A typical sewage treatment plant treats waste in a three-step process: a primary treatment to             separate solid material from the wastewater stream, a secondary treatment to convert dissolved organic material into a solid mass, and a tertiary treatment in which the biological solids are neutralized and then disposed of or re-used and the treated water may be disinfected. The final effluent can be discharged into a stream, river, bay, lagoon or wetland, or it can be used for the irrigation of a golf course, greenway or park. If it is sufficiently clean, it can also be used for groundwater recharge or agricultural purposes. The sludge that is produced also undergoes special sludge treatment (

What Do We Mean by Waste Management?


Waste management refers to all the activities and actions required to manage waste from its inception to its final disposal. This includes the collection, transport, treatment and disposal of waste together with monitoring and regulation. Experts in waste management often follow four key principles (

     1. The Waste Hierarchy Diagram. The waste hierarchy diagram refers to the "3 Rs" (reduce, reuse and recycle), which classify waste management strategies according to their desirability in terms of minimizing waste. It is the cornerstone of most waste minimization strategies. The aim of the waste hierarchy is to extract the maximum practical benefits from products and to generate the minimum amount of waste. The hierarchy is represented as a pyramid because the basic premise is preventing the generation of waste is the highest priority. The next preferred action is to reduce the generation of waste through re-use followed by recycling, material recovery and waste-to-energy, and disposal. This last step is the final resort for waste which has not been prevented, diverted or recovered.  

Most preferred

Least preferred





Energy recovery


Waste Hierarchy Diagram

     2. Life Cycle of a Product. The life-cycle of a product begins with design, then proceeds through manufacture, distribution, use and then follows through the waste hierarchy's stages of reduce, reuse and recycle. Each of the above stages of the life-cycle offers opportunities for policy intervention, to rethink the need for the product, to redesign to minimize waste potential, to extend its use. The key behind the life-cycle of a product is to optimize the use of the world's limited resources by avoiding the unnecessary generation of waste.


     3. Resource Efficiency. Resource efficiency reflects the understanding that current, global, economic growth and development cannot be sustained with the current production and consumption patterns. Globally, we are extracting more resources to produce goods than the planet can replenish. Resource efficiency is the reduction of the environmental impact from the production and consumption of these goods, from final raw material extraction to last use and disposal. This process of resource efficiency can address sustainability.


     4. Polluter-Pays Principle. The polluter-pays principle states that the polluting party should pay for the impact caused to the environment. With respect to waste management, this generally refers to the requirement for a waste generator to pay for appropriate disposal of the unrecoverable material.

Waste Prevention

The ideal technique of waste management is preventing waste from occurring in the first place or at least attempting to minimize the amount of waste that occurs. It is the least expensive technique, it avoids many social and environmental harms, and it may save money at the point of production.

An example of reducing the cost needed to manufacture or package a product. has occurred with deodorants. Most roll-on deodorants once came in a plastic bottle, which was inside a box. Beginning about 1992, deodorant manufacturers redesigned the bottle so that it would not tip-over easily on store shelves, which eliminated the need for the box as packaging. This eliminated the cost of the box and simultaneously eliminated one type of waste.This type of waste prevention called source reduction. It can save businesses money, while also reducing waste. A second example has occurred as chains of clothing stores have shifted from using disposable garment bags to reusable bags, This has reduced production costs for the business and reduced plastic garment bags - a large source of waste (, 2017), 

Much of municipal waste in the United States occurs in food preparation and consumption activities, and many of these also offer opportunities for preventing waste. Two common examples are using cloth rather than paper napkins and ceasing to use plastic straws at home or in restaurants.

A slightly different but also excellent example of this approach is the use of composting – an easy-to-use technique that uses natural biodegradation processes. Rather than discarding organic items, such as plant material, food scraps, and paper products, they can be used to build a compost heap in which the organic matter decomposes. The resulting material can then be used as nutrient food for plants or for agricultural purposes or as mulch for landscaping purposes (Conserve Energy Future, 2017). 

A large compost pile


Yard waste, primarily grass clippings and tree leaves, makes up about one-fifth of the weight of municipal solid waste. Finding alternative purposes for these items is a waste prevention measure. For example, homeowners or lawn maintenance companies can leave grass clippings on the lawn after mowing (this is known as grass-cycling and offers benefits to the lawn) or can compost leaves and grass in a backyard composting bin, or use them as mulch in the garden.


Some states have now banned the disposal of yard waste. These yard-waste bans have resulted in rapid growth for municipal composting programs in which yard waste is collected by trucks (separately from garbage and recyclables) and taken to a composting plant, where it is chopped up, heaped, and regularly turned until it becomes compost (, 2017). 

Waste Re-using

Another way to reduce waste is to re-use products that may otherwise be thrown away. This may involve processes such as reuse of second-hand products (often purchased at an antique, consignment, or salvage store), repairing broken items instead of buying new ones, designing products to be refillable or reusable (such as cotton instead of plastic shopping bags), encouraging consumers to avoid using disposable products (such as disposable cutlery), and designing products that use less material to achieve the same purpose (for example, lighter weight beverage cans) [Wikipedia (Waste Management), 2017).


Energy Recovery

A newer re-use technique, waste-to-energy, is the recovery of energy by the conversion of non-recyclable waste materials into usable heat, electricity, or fuel. This can be accomplished through a variety of processes in which the energy content of waste products can be used as a direct combustion fuel or processed into another type of fuel used for cooking and heating. The conversion of waste to electricity and heat generates a renewable energy source and can reduce carbon emissions by offsetting the need for energy from fossil sources. It also reduces methane generation from landfills.Globally, waste-to-energy accounts for 16% of waste management (Conserve Energy Future, 2017). 

Recycling (Resource Recovery)

Recycling is a resource recovery practice that refers to the collection and re-use of waste materials such as empty beverage containers. The materials from which the items are made can be reprocessed into the same product or converted into new products. This is done to reduce the use of raw materials that would have been used in the making of new products, to use less energy, and to control air, water and land pollution by eliminating the need to fully dispose of the item through incineration and landfills.


The most common consumer products that are recycled are aluminum (such as beverage cans), copper (such as wire), steel (such as food and aerosol cans), rubber (such as tires), glass (bottles and jars), paper (paperboard cartons, newspapers, magazines, and cardboard), and polyethylene and PET bottles.


Material for recycling may be collected separately from general waste using dedicated bins and collection vehicles (a procedure called curbside recycling) or taken to dedicated bins in designated areas. In some communities, all recyclable materials are placed in a single bin for collection, and the sorting is handled later at a central facility (a process known as single-stream recycling).


Recycling offers many benefits:

     1. It protects the environment. This is because the recyclable waste materials would have been burned or ended up in the landfill. Pollution of the air, land, water and soil is reduced.

     2. It conserves natural resources. Recycling waste means that we do not depend as much on raw (natural) resources, which are already massively depleted.

     3. It saves energy. It takes more energy to produce items with raw materials than from recycling used materials. This means we are more energy efficient and the prices of products can come down.


     4. It creates jobs. People are employed to collect, sort and work in recycling companies. Others also get jobs with businesses that work with these recycling units. There can be a ripple of jobs in the municipality (Eschool, 2017). 

     5. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change.


There is good news about recycling. The amount of recycling in the United States has increased in the last decade to an all-time high. However, the bad news is that we still recycle less than 35 percent of recyclable material, and the rate of progress has slowed. In response, many states and cities have turned to mandatory recycling. It is still a controversial issue, and there are vocal advocates on both sides of the issue.

    Compacted tash


Mandatory Recycling?


The benefits of recycling have been determined by some communities to be so great that they now require residents to recycle. Rama Lingam (2017) in “Mandatory Recycling Laws: Pros and Cons” identifies the key arguments supporting and opposing mandatory recycling laws.


          * Keeps the environment clean which will ultimately help to reduce global warming and prevent


          * Reduces environmental pollution and the volume of garbage

          * Reduces greenhouse gas emissions leading to a cleaner atmosphere and environment

          * Reduces the amount of landfilling work, and landfilling space is saved

          * Recycling plastic bags (which cannot be destroyed) prevents harm to human beings, animals, birds,  and fishes. Recycling glass prevents injuries. Recycled food materials at home can be turned into compost for gardens. Reycling steel creates a new product which decreases the demand for new mining of iron ore and saves a natural resource.

          * Is cost-effective: recycling has a cost between $50 and $150 per ton while the cost of trash collection and disposal is estimated at $70 to $200 per ton

          * Creates recycling job opportunities

          * Has been the practice in Europe since the 1990s and has worked well with small or no fines


          * A national consensus on mandatory recycling laws is lacking. Some states and cities have laws; others do not. Some laws cover residential and business; others cover only one or the other. Some laws target particular types of material, but the material is not always the same.

          *Many people do not want to recycle and will do so only if threatened by a fine or other penalty.

          * Some experts believe that mandatory recycling is more costly than sending materials to landfills. If so, people may be required to pay more in taxes, and money is diverted from other social and environmental programs.

          * It will reduce the number of jobs by displacing those who dispose of waste materials.

          * It may encourage some residences or businesses to disguise waste instead of complying with mandatory recycling.

The Five R’s for Personal Waste


In addition to the commonly cited three environmental R's (reduce, re-use, and recycle). some are now adding two more (refuse and rot).

The most effective way to reduce waste is to Refuse. Say “no thank you” to items produced to last a life time but are used once for a short period of time. Everyday examples include: straws; plastic lids and bags (including produce and snack bags); beverage containers; coffee cups, sleeves, and pods. Simply skip these single-use items or use your own reusable version.

When you cannot refuse, then simply reduce. Choose items with minimal or no packaging, such as bar soap or bulk food. You may have heard about the emphasis on reducing the amount of waste created by disposable plastics, such as water bottles and bags. Plastic items litter beaches and pollute oceans. Although convenient, plastics threaten our environment. You can easily reduce single-use water bottle waste by refilling a reusable water bottle. Re-using products will help you save money, reduce waste, and preserve valuable resources.

When you cannot refuse, reduce or re-use, make sure to recycle. This includes purchasing products made from recycled content. Look for items with “post-consumer” material to save the natural resources — trees, water, and energy — used to produce new products.

The final “R” — rot — means creating a valuable resource from our food waste and organics. Recycle your fruit, vegetables, and yard trimmings into nutrients for your soil by home composting.

By using the five R’s you can save money and decrease waste. Landfills are compacted and covered up daily with little oxygen and moisture to break down and decompose waste. When items are landfilled, they are preserved and last a long time. Keep valuable items out of the landfill (City of San Jose, 2017). 

What Can Be Done?

The starting points for doing something about the many harms from failure to recycle is the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:

  • Become more knowledgeable about this issue.


  • Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.


  • Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.


  • Advocate for waste prevention, re-use of what otherwise would be discarded items and material, local adoption of energy recovery processes, and recycllng. Advocate for your local government to support and facilitate recycling in whatever ways it can. Encourage debate about whether voluntary or mandatory recycling would work better in your community. 


  • Become a role model for personal commitment to waste prevention and recycling. Advocate for individuals and families in your community to commit to effective recycling. Consider how you and others can incorporate the Five Rs described above into your life. 


  • Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to consideration of waste reduction is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.



City of San Jose, CA. 2017 “Waste Reduction.”

Conserve Energy Future. 2017 “Waste Management and Waste Disposal Methods.” 2017 “Waste Disposal.”

Environmental Protection Agency. 2017 “Waste.”

E-School Today. 2017 “Sources of Waste.”


E-School Today. 2017 “What is Recycling?”

Global Development Resource Center. 2017 “Sewage Sludge.”

Humes, Edward. 2012 Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash. Avery: Garden City, NY.

New World Encyclopedia. 2017 “Sewage Treatment.”


Rama Lingham. 2017 “Mandatory Recycling Laws: Pros and Cons.”

Sludge News. 2017 “About Sludge News.”

Wikipedia. 2017 “Blackwater.”

Wikipedia. 2017 “Human Waste.”

Wikipedia. 2017 “Radioactive Waste.”

Wikipedia. 2017 “Sewage.”


Wikipedia. 2017 “Waste Management.”

Read and See More on Waste Prevention, Waste Re-using, and Recycling

Christine Cole. 2017 “China Bans Foreign Waste – But What Will Happen to the World's Recycling?

     Implications of China’s 2017 decision to limit or end import of many recyclables.

Taylor Cox. 2017. “The Future of Robotics in the Waste Industry.” Waste Advantage 8:48-49.

     Discusses the introduction of artificial intelligence and robotics to the sanitation industry.T

Environmental Protection Agency. 2017 “Reducing Waste: What You Can Do.”


     Suggestions for reducing waste in a variety of settings.

Matthew S. Hollis. 2017 “Walking Through the Food Waste Hierarchy.” Waste Advantage 8:32-33.

      Identifies ways to reduce food waste at home, in restaurants, and in grocery stores.

Rama Lingham. 2017 “Mandate Versus Voluntary: What Works Better for Recycling.”

     Recycling facts with targeted foci on plastic, cans, paper, glass, cardboard, food waste, compost, and e-waste.


QSR Magazine, “The 33 Million Ton Diet.” 2017


     Opportunities for fast-food restaurants to reduce waste.

Recycle Across America, “Did You Know?” 2017

     Recycling facts with emphasis on specific materials.

RecyclingTown, “Recycling Facts.” 2017


     Recycling facts with special focus on particular materials and a section on information for children.

Nathaniel Scharping. 2017 “Here’s How Much Plastic Humanity Has Produced.” July: 1.

      A brief view of our plasticized society.

Lucy Schley. 2017 “The Truth About Our Trash.” Discover November: 1.


      A breakdown of all the plastic waste dumped on our planet.

(Sample Scholarly Article) Susanna A. Bassi, Thomas A. Christiansen, and Anders Damgaard. 2017 “Environmental Performance of Household Management in Europe – An Example of Seven Countries.” Waste Management 69:545-557.

      Study examines factors that influence participation in household environmentally sound waste management activities. Among other findings, it is determined that the quality and usage of recovered materials and energy is a more motivating factor than the quantity of the management.

(Sample Scholarly article) Adekunle Oke and Joanneke Kruijsen. 2016  "The Importance of Specific Recycling Information." Recycling 1(2): 271-285; doi:10.3390/recycling1020271

     Examination of the effect of clearer presentation of recycling on participation rates.

(Video) KCETSoCalConnected. “CarbonLite: Inside the World's Largest Plastic Bottle Recycling Plant.”

     Shows Riverside, California's plastic bottle recycling plant and the benefits it offers.

(Video) “Recycling Empty Plastic Bottles.”

     Focuses on recycling and repurposing plastic bottles.

(Video) The Supply Chain Sustainability School: “Waste: The Waste Hierarchy.”

     A brief explanation of the Waste Hierarchy focusing on Reduce, Re-use, Recycle, and Dispose.

Sample of Scholarly Journals:

  • Environment and Behavior

  • Journal of Environmental Psychology

  • Journal of Environmental Systems

  • Recycling

  • Resources, Conservation, and Recycling

  • Waste Management and Research

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