You can’t ignore the elephant in the room, and you can’t ignore a 3.5 square mile area in your community piled-high with garbage (much like the Fresh Kills Landfill in New York City) (CNN). The solid waste created by the billions of people on this planet has been building at an alarming rate, and continues to do so. Most everything we buy is packaged. Consumer cultures like things nice and neat, an assurance of cleanliness and newness. Once we consume our products we pawn off the left over material to our municipal trash and recycling service, which pawns off the waste to a recycling center or more likely a landfill. We would like to think that most recyclable waste is disposed of correctly, but in fact the EPA informs us that in 2010 the United States only recycled 34% of its total municipal waste generated. That’s a dramatic increase from 25 years prior when the total recycling rate was only 10%, but not so impressive when we learn that total waste generation more than doubled in that 25-year period. There are tens of thousands of square kilometers occupied by waste all over the world, an estimated 40,000 in the United States alone. Rachel Oliver (CNN journalist) explains that this is not just a problem for industrialized nations, though they are by far the largest generators of waste. Undeveloped nations have less waste, but no resources to treat it, leaving hazardous heaps out in the open on the outer boundaries of slums and communities.
How can we dispose of these miles of trash? How do we prevent future accumulation of more waste? Should we burn it? Historically, incinerating waste has been a viable option for disposal. Not only that, intensely hot steam released in the incineration process was harnessed to produce power. Solid waste incineration started in an increasingly industrialized Britain in the 1870’s. An inventor named Albert Fryer patented the design for the first incinerator (then called “destructors”) built in Nottingham in 1874 (The Chartered Institution of Wastes Management). New York City would soon after adopt the method of waste disposal, seeing it as the perfect solution to a building waste problem in the densely populated city. Incinerators were in operation for nearly a century without obligation to air control standards. It would be another twenty years before specific stringent standards would be enforced. Prior to the existence of the EPA (and equivalent European organizations), efforts to minimize incinerator pollution were limited to sorting of waste, pre-incineration drying of waste and a moving grate design for thorough elimination of waste. Despite an aptness for industrial ingenuity during that era, there was little understanding that incinerator design could be specified to different types of waste at different volumes, improving performance and reducing potency of by-product.
Political awareness of a need for better design was realized mid-20th Century, but all too late as the public perception of incinerator plants was one of disgust. Those living in near proximity of incineration plants faced poor air quality, pungent odor and health problems. According to a study conducted by the British Journal of Cancer the closer the residents’ proximity to the incineration site the higher the occurrence and risk of multiple types of cancers and illnesses. Specifically, there was 37% excess cases of liver cancer and 5% excess cases of colorectal cancer in populations living within 0-1 km of incineration site. The study accounted for other potential causes including socioeconomic status.
Adverse health effects from prolonged exposure to incinerator by-product come as no shock when we consider the content of gases and ash produced: sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, cadmium, mercury, dioxins and furans. Certainly the worst among these are dioxins and furan, which are carcinogenic cancer-causing particulates. United Nations Environment Program claims that 69% of the world’s dioxin contamination is a result of waste incineration. However dioxin is also present in high levels in the herbicide 2-4-5-T. When used for warfare in Korea and Vietnam 2-4-5-T was nicknamed Agent Orange. It was released by aircrafts over large distances and in comparatively high volumes to destroy food supply and expose areas suspected of harboring enemy forces. Food was contaminated in affected areas and populations were exposed to concentrated levels of dioxin. Higher than normal rates of stillborn and premature births were reported by hospitals in affected areas; the same effects were seen amongst local animal populations. Upon their return home some U.S. Vietnam Veterans developed chloracne, a disease that causes eruption of the skin, numbness in extremities, respiratory problems, irritability, loss of sex drive, headache and depression. Many developed cancer and lesions of the skin as a result of ingestion or contact with concentrated levels of dioxin (Barbara Clayton).
Dioxin molecules are very stable; they reside in contacted areas for generations. Barbara Clayton’s article explains that in many cases the offspring of contaminated populations are born with minor to serious defects, including deformity and retardation. Families exposed to the clothing of the contaminated individuals sometimes contracted disease or illness characteristic of dioxin exposure years after the initial contamination.
Dioxins and furans are born of the chemical reaction that takes place when organic materials like wood and paper are incinerated at extremely high temperatures. It is present in both ash and gas by-product of incineration. The most modern technology for waste combustion that suppresses or contains flue gas, still releases particulates into the atmosphere and into the ground. Incinerator ash is often spread over landfills. Watershed problems in developed areas create the potential for this ash to be carried into food or water supplies, along with other hazardous substances residing in our landfills. We also raise concern for the workers exposed to this by-product day in and day out. Are they aware of the health risks they take by doing this work? Are their families aware?
It becomes clear to us that incineration cannot be a viable method of disposal, regardless of how strict pollution standards have become and how much more efficient incinerator design has become. Until there is incineration technology that can prevent the creation of dangerous chemicals and particulates, we can only use incineration to a very limited degree. There is a place for incinerators in the future of solid waste disposal with the elimination of health care waste. Contamination of medical equipment with infectious pathogens makes re-use dangerous. Extremely high temperatures are often the only way to destroy these pathogens.
Waste generation is not sustainable. We have created a mess that we aren’t sure how to clean up, at least not safely. Future emphasis concerning waste should be to avoid it all together. We can’t avoid waste completely, but we can reduce waste generation to a manageable point for future generations. A change in public attitude and commercial infrastructure are key to waste reduction. For example, because food production is centralized and distributed over long distances, packaging becomes necessary. Buying local can make packaging obsolete. The public effort should be directed towards maximizing recycling rates. Awareness should be raised of what materials can be re-used and it should be underlined that these materials be recycled every time. Recycling should be highly organized at state and municipal levels. It should also be thorough; items like abandoned furniture and electronics should be salvaged as much as possible. It will take a collective effort of this sort to avoid solid waste generation and thus the problems of disposal.
Photo Credit: wikipedia.org/wiki/Incineration