The Similarity of Environmental Impacts from All Methods of Managing Solid Wastes

Joseph R. Visalli

DOI: 10.2190/8PT0-47KT-M6PQ-4WB2


There are four principal methods of managing solid wastes—recycling, composting, incineration, and landfilling. The public's knowledge about the environmental impacts of each method comes from a wide variety of sources. The media, environmental groups, universities, consultants, government, and competing equipment vendors have provided a vast amount of information that is often incomplete, conflicting, and biased. Consequently, it is difficult to know how well the public understands the environmental aspects of managing waste. However, in distilled form, the publicized popular perspective can probably be summed up as a negative view of incinerators and landfills, and a perception that recycling and composting tend to be environmentally benign. This disparity has created social tensions and political problems in many communities, and has made integrated waste management systems (i.e., a system comprised of all four methods of managing wastes) difficult, if not impossible, to implement. The intent of this article is to reduce current levels of rhetoric and conflict by describing the many environmental impact similarities that exist among the different methods of managing wastes. In addition, the difficulties in comparing these impacts are outlined, and the complexities in comparing impacts from primary and recycled materials processing are discussed. A clear understanding of these similarities and comparative difficulties is a necessary prerequisite to planning integrated systems, and would help to ensure that one type of adverse environmental impact is not merely replaced with another. In this article, the term "environmental impact" is used to mean the concentration or generation rates of various pollutants that are emitted during waste processing operations.

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