Waste Management and Recycling

What is it and what’s wrong with it?

We throw out things every day, but most people don’t think about where our "stuff" comes from or goes. All garbage must be landfilled, incinerated, dumped in the ocean (see Key Environmental Issues Today section on “The Oceans”), or is shipped to out to distant locations to deal with waste using one or more of the aforementioned strategies.

Landfills have many problems: they leach toxic material if they are not properly lined and maintained (which is, unfortunately, all too common), can spark debris fires, and also release large amounts of methane, among other issues. E-waste like old computers, smartphones, and televisions release toxic chemicals into the air, earth, and water when tossed into landfills or are burned in incinerators. Such toxins can cause cancer, reproductive issues and other health problems.

Incinerators are often used to burn waste materials to generate energy in so-called “waste-to-energy” plants (WTE). In other cases, incinerators are used to simply burn waste so that it takes up less volume and can be landfilled more easily. This waste management “solution” has its share of issues: burning materials (which are sometimes hazardous) pollutes our air, and, when burned material is buried in a landfill it can leach just like conventional landfills do, allowing toxins and chemicals to permeate into the surrounding soil and water reserves.  

Interesting facts:

1)    The average US citizen throws out 4.5 lbs of trash per day.

2)    New Yorkers are estimated to throw out even more trash each day, at 6.2 lbs.

3)    BUT Long Islanders (in the N.Y. area) produce the most trash: 7.5 lbs PER DAY! That’s 1.75 times more garbage than the rest of the United States!

4)    New York City has to ship out all of its waste, as it has no way to treat/store it in the City.

Across the world, poor people in developing countries often go “waste picking” on local beaches and in waste that is shipped from abroad to their countries. Picking through such waste, although it can turn a profit for these impoverished people, is inherently dangerous and horrible for their health. Waste pickers almost always work in unsanitary conditions and often come into contact with hazardous materials like heavy metals from batteries, noxious chemical vapors, contaminated needles, and fecal matter. These workers risk injuries, often being accidentally run over by garbage dump trucks, “drowning” after falling into large heaps of garbage or falling victim to garbage “slides,” and becoming trapped in landfill fires and explosions.  

Even municipal and private garbage collection in developed countries like the United States is wrought with issues. Until very recently, sanitation workers in the United States were forced to work in almost inhumane conditions: long hours, low wages, and few breaks. Today, conditions have improved, but are not ideal. Many sanitation workers in developed countries suffer from illnesses and injuries associated with exposure to waste and performing back breaking work, including some dermatological conditions, respiratory illnesses, torn muscles, and broken bones.


What’s been done?

Legislation exists regarding what types of materials can enter Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills and Municipal and Medical/Infectious Solid Waste incinerators exists and is regulated by the EPA in the United States. Pollution prevention technologies, including dry and wet scrubbers on incinerator smokestacks and various types of liners and covers to prevent leaching in landfills. However, none of these regulations and technologies is fail-safe, and environmental contamination continues to occur.

Currently, some municipalities and private recycling firms are expanding the amount and types of waste they recycle. In addition, they are upgrading recycling processes and improving practices. Many towns, like the Town of Hempstead on Long Island, are enacting STOP (Stop Throwing Out Pollutants) (or similar) programs in which citizens may safely dispose of hazardous household items like paints and pharmaceuticals. Some places have single-stream recycling programs, which make it super-easy for people to recycle without having to sort their waste. Many supermarkets now have receptacles in which people may recycle their plastic bags/wrappers

Some municipalities are turning landfills into parks! With time and proper remediation techniques, the good news is that many landfills can become beautiful parks bountiful with plants and wildlife. One example is the former Fresh Kills Landfill (now Fresh Kills Park) in Staten Island, New York, which is slated to become the site of a solar power plant! Other former “dumps” have been converted into usable green spaces for recreation and enjoyment all over the world. 


What's been done?

Many activists, in addition to advocating for better methods of waste collection and treatment, tell the public that the ideal solution to the world’s waste problem is to simply buy less stuff! 

Some prominent figures in this movement include:

Annie Leonard: To learn more about waste and its impact, watch the incredible: Story of Stuff. Also, check out Annie Leonard's site, The Story of Stuff Project.

Colin Beaven: Watch the film No Impact Man and follow the filmmaker, Colin Beaven, on his blog.

Dave Chameides: Two-time Emmy Award winning filmmaker Dave Chameides travels the globe to speak to the public about the problems with consumerism and waste. To learn firsthand about the amount of “stuff” Americans toss out on a daily basis, he did just the opposite: that is, he kept all the trash he and his family produced in his basement…for an entire year! Read about his journey on his blog and visit his website for more information.


What can you do?

-Reduce, Reuse, Recycle:

-Reduce the amount of garbage that you produce—buy less and buy wisely (buy stuff with less packaging).

-Reuse objects, tools, clothes, furniture, and more. You’ll be surprised  that pretty much anything can be reused, repaired, or repurposed, which keeps more “stuff” out of landfills!

-Recycle when the stuff you use cannot be reused any longer: see a full list of what/how to recycle here!

-Use a reusable water bottle and coffee/tea mug, as well as shopping bags, food storage containers, and more! Buy products that can be used over and over again.

-Buy products that are sustainable and made of recycled, recyclable, and/or naturally biodegradable materials (i.e. Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper that is forested sustainably).

-Attention fashionistas! Many types of stylish, durable clothing are now sustainably made: look for garments made of bamboo-fiber, recycled wool, and non-toxic dyes, among other earth-friendly materials.

-Start your own "impact journal." Note how much you consume and throw away. Pay attention and find out how you can reduce your use. Talk to your friends, politicians, and employers. Change happens one person at a time.

-Put yourself to the challenge: can you be a NO IMPACT Person?

Or, better yet: put your community to the challenge—can it be a NO IMPACT Community?

Consume less!


learn more here:


 America’s Most Dangerous Jobs: #8 Sanitation Worker by Les Christie (CNN, 2011)

What it Takes to Turn a Massive Staten Island Landfill Into a Park by Sarah Goodyear (Next City, 2013)

Long Island Recycling: A Report Card for 14 Long Island Municipalities (Citizens Campaign for the Environment, 2009)

Recycling on Long Island: A Report on Programs in Nassau and Suffolk County (SUNY Stony Brook School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences: SoMAS, 2009)

World’s Largest Landfill Will Soon Be NYC’s Biggest Solar Plant by Kiley Kroh (Climate Progress, 2013)



Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2006)

Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash by Edward Humes (2013)

Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade by Adam Minter (2013)

Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City by Robin Nagle (2013)



Addicted to Plastic (2008)

Affluenza (2011)

Bag It (2012)

Dive! (2011)

Landfillharmonic (Tentative 2013)

No Impact Man (2008)

Plastic Planet (2010)

Trash Dance (2013)

Trashed (2013)

WALL-E (2008)

Waste Land (2010)


video clips

A Video About Waste Incineration in the UK (Nottinghamshire Indy Media 2011)

Brazil Turning Trash to Cash (CNN, 2010)

Cambodia: Children of the Dump (Rory Byrne, 2008)

E-Waste Hell (SBS Dateline, 2011)

Fresh Kills: From Landfill to Park on Staten Island (The New York Times, 2012)

How Landfills are Built and Operated (New Jersey Star Ledger, 2009)

The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard (2007)

Waste Management Single Stream Recycling: Take a Tour of Our Philadelphia MRF (WM Think Green, 2009)