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Waste waste Household

Municipal Solid Waste Management – How You Can Make a Difference

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by: Ariana M
municipal solid waste management   how you can make a difference

Every first Monday of October we celebrate World Habitat Day. First introduced in 1986, this United Nations event aims to “reflect on the state of our towns and cities, and on the basic right of all to adequate shelter”. Municipal Solid Waste Management is the main theme of this year’s celebration, and, as usual, I would like to use this opportunity to bring more awareness of the sustainability issues that are related to it and try to take a look at some of the solutions.

So what is Municipal Solid Waste and how is it managed?

Municipal Solid Waste consists of various types of refuse we encounter most often in our daily lives: household waste, construction and demolition debris, sanitation residue and waste from streets. There are two mains methods of managing solid waste – the centralised method, where all of the waste is collected and discarded without separation, usually into a landfill, and de-centralised method, where the waste requires prior separation into biodegradeable and non-biodegradable and is then disposed of based on its type.

Once the waste is collected, there are several ways the municipality can dispose of it. In many parts of the world the most popular options are sanitary landfills and dumps. They are essentially the same – a place where all of the waste is collected in one area – with the only difference being that sanitary landfills are more concentrated and the waste’s contact with the environment is highly reduced. Dumps, on the other hand, are open areas that are exposed to the elements and animals and are often responsible for contamination of land and water. Another danger of dumps is the biodiversity impacts that they have: many species of animals that lived in the area get replaced by refuse-feeding species, such as rats and crows. These species will also spread disease and thus affect health of the residents in the area. Lastly, landfills harm the natural landscape and the smell makes them an unwanted sight in most residential areas.

Another disposal method that is gaining popularity is thermal treatment. There are several types of thermal treatment, such as incineration, gasification, pyrolysis and others. This method allows to save space and is thus particularly beneficial in countries where land is scarce such as Japan. Incineration plants can also be constructed in a way that allows to harvest the energy released during the burning process and use that to generate electric power and heating. Many European countries rely heavily on this method, with Sweden actually importing trash from other countries to generate more energy. While this thermal treatment is a more sustainable alternative to landfills, there are concerns about its safety as harmful chemicals may get released into the air during the process.

Many developed nations are moving towards the more sustainable thermal treatment and recycling, however according to World Bank over 90% of the waste in low-income countries is disposed of in unregulated dumps or openly burned. Effective waste management is expensive and requires specialised infrastructure, something many poor urban communities simply cannot afford. Lack of municipal resources pushes up demand for informal waste pickers and disposers - occupations that are highly dangerous and are often filled by women and children; air pollution, injuries and landfill collapses are only the few of the risks that they face on a daily basis. 

And it’s not only the workers that are dealing with the waste directly that are affected by it. When waste is left untreated and unattended, it will inevitably start leaching toxic materials and pathogens into the soil and water. Many communities are left with no choice but to use the contaminated soil for farming and continue drinking the water, thereby consuming harmful chemicals. Communities that are located directly next to waste dumping sites often experience high occurrences of cancer, birth defects and various health issues. As treatment of contaminated soil and water requires use of advanced and expensive technology, it is nearly impossible to reverse the damage that was already done.

Luckily, more organisations around the world are taking notice of the problem and are actively trying to help develop more affordable waste treatment methods and provide financing for waste management projects in poorer countries. While this will not help clean the areas that were already affected by waste, it will create safer disposals that will prevent further damage to the eco system.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The reality is that we produce more and more trash every year and it is essential to improve the way solid waste is managed. This can be done on many levels – we should be changing the way we consume and produce various items, improving municipal governance systems, educating more capable city managers and changing our own daily habits. Naturally the best place to start making changes is ourselves, so let’s look at the ways we can contribute to better solid waste management.

According to World Bank, in 2016 people living in cities produced 0.74 kilograms (1.63 lb) of waste per person per day. The first step one can take to help improve solid waste management is to produce less waste. Take a good look at what you buy and consume every week. Perhaps it is time to get yourself a nice shopper for your groceries or a stylish tumbler for your morning coffee (some coffee chains will offer you a discount for using your own tumbler!)? It is also worth researching what kind of packaging you might be able to return to the store – depending on where you live, you might be able to return glass or plastic bottles to the supermarkets and some farmers’ markets will be happy to accept empty egg cartons.

Step two on the road to becoming more sustainable is reusing. This is probably something that you have heard a lot about recently when it comes to furniture and clothes – upcycling has definitely become a bit of a buzzword with many bloggers. The idea of taking objects that can no longer be used or repaired and using the parts to create something else is as old as time and it can take many forms. As an example, you could turn an old tablecloth that has stains in all the wrong places into a set of napkins, transform a picture frame into a vertical planter or use wooden pallets to make just about any piece of furniture you could think of. There are many very creative ideas to be found online and it is definitely worth taking some time to browse Pinterest or websites like before throwing something out. Who knows, perhaps you could turn old IKEA table into an amazing piece of art or discover a way to build a house out of pallets to keep all of your newly made pallet furniture in?

Lastly, there is recycling. Normally recycling is presented as the most responsible way of managing waste, but it really should be the last step of the journey for an item. When something has already been bought and can no longer be used or transformed into something else – this is when it is time to recycle it. Recycling allows the items to be converted back into raw materials and objects, something that isn’t always possible to achieve at home. Every area will have different rules for separating recyclable materials, so please make sure to follow those as closely as possible – this is the only way you can be certain that they will get a second life.

If you’re interested in this topic, click here to read more about one of the Seven Natural Wonders that is being overtaken by trash. And fashion is more your thing, click here to read why circular fashion is the trendiest choice you could make.

Do you know of any waste management initiatives in your area? Or do you have interesting upcycling ideas? Share them in the comments!

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