Protecting the environment. The environmental impacts of traditional waste disposal methods – and their effects on public health –‒came under closer scrutiny after World War II. In the U.S., federal authorities passed legislation regulating the construction and operation of landfills to prevent, among other things, landfill debris from leaching into and contaminating groundwater.
Today, most landfills are lined and the problem of landfill greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions garners more attention than leaching. Landfill gases are produced by the breakdown of organic materials. They contain carbon dioxide, methane, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and odorous compounds that can adversely affect public health and the environment.
Methane is of particular concern. It is 25 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Methane from landfills represents about 12% of total global methane emissions.
There are also significant carbon emissions released from the transportation of municipal solid waste.
Controlling costs. Managing solid waste can take a huge bite out of a municipal budget. For cities in less affluent countries, trash collection and disposal often represent the largest single budget item. Moreover, the global cost of managing garbage is going up, most severely for those cities in low-income countries. The World Bank predicts the annual global garbage bill will jump from the current $205 billion to $375 billion by 2025.
Stricter government regulations play a role in higher waste management costs. For example, in the 1990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required that authorities in charge of existing municipal waste landfills either install groundwater and gas monitoring programs – plus adhere to other operating standards – or close down their landfills. For many communities the price tag to meet the new require ments was too high. In Texas, the number of landfills dropped from more than 1,000 to the 100 in operation today.
Similar restrictions are in effect in Europe. In Germany, untreated municipal solid waste has been effectively banned from landfills since June 2005.
Promoting sustainability. Waste management practices have become increasingly linked to the goal of sustainability. Programs that promote waste prevention, recycling and material recovery directly support emerging sustainability goals by reducing demands on resources and energy and the need to create more landfills.
The zero waste movement represents an even broader push for sustainability. It not only advocates for eliminating waste through waste prevention and recycling, it works toward restructuring production and distribution systems to make everything reusable – in theory completely eliminating the need for landfills and incineration. This notion of intentionally designing products in a way that their materials can be continually returned to the production process is the basic tenant of what’s called the circular economy.