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The Negative Effects of Waste On The Environment

Eoin is an Undergraduate student studying Geography at the National University of Ireland Galway.

Waste and the Environment

The production of waste is a severe issue in our world today, particularly in the Global North. Everyone knows that waste is having an impact on the environment, but no one seems to know just how much of an effect it is indeed having.

You see the landfills, the single-use plastics and the litter washing up on the shores of our beaches today but did you ever stop to think about the damage it could all be causing?

Consumption, production and population are all crucial factors that play a role in waste production.

Think about your production of waste on a personal level and then multiply it by at least the population of our planet one and a half times over to account for the wastefulness of institutions and corporations alike.

The result is a frightening amount of waste.

In Europe people are consuming 16 tonnes of material per person per annum and of that 16 tonnes, a staggering 6 tonnes becomes waste.

In countries located in the Global South, there are rivers which have been merely transformed into flowing garbage disposals. Needless to say, that marine life and eco-systems have sustained critical damage in such instances.

This article is going to hone in on the effect waste is having on our planet and what stands to remedy the situation.


An Ocean of Plastic

Waste produced by life on land is having a detrimental effect on life at sea. News platforms worldwide are now reporting findings of aquatic life full of human-made debris.

A whale was recently found dead somewhere in the region East of Davao City, the Philippines. A heartbreaking 40kg of plastic was removed from the mammal's stomach. The plastic consisted of rice sacks and grocery bags.

Single-use plastics are responsible for a large portion of pollution in the world's oceans today.

So much so that on May 2018 the European Commission proposed a new Single-Use Plastics directive to clamp down on the ten single-use plastics found most often on beaches and at sea as well as lost and abandoned fishing gear.

Single-Use Plastics and discarded or lost fishing gear account for 70% of all marine litter items.

If nothing changes, more and more innocent marine life will be affected. Human beings have a responsibility to take action and see to it that the situation does not escalate further.

If not for a moral sense of obligation to fix a problem they created then for the survival of our species as 3.2 billion people worldwide are reliant on seafood for 20% of their animal protein intake.

Contaminated fish stocks could see those people go hungry.

Overreliance On Landfills

Landfills have traditionally been used to dispose of large amounts of waste. Ireland is an excellent example of a Nation who were heavily reliant on landfills but to their credit have made small strides towards a more eco-friendly approach to waste disposal.

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Albeit all progress has been primarily down to membership within the EU and directives which have been passed that the government were compelled to follow or face financial sanctions from said body.

During 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency found that Ireland was using dumps to dispose of 94% of all household waste.

From the information, we have available today about the harmful practice that is using landfills to bury rubbish that statistic feels astonishing.

There are main three reasons landfills are not a sustainable method to dispose of waste:

  1. Waste is not biodegradable meaning it will not breakdown.
  2. Waste while decomposing can release toxic gases, which adds to the greenhouse gas effect and accelerates global warming.
  3. Waste attracts vermin if left exposed, which could lead to an infestation problem, which could negatively impact human health.

For the reasons stated above, landfills are not a suitable method to dispose of waste and should be gradually phased out in favour of greener methods.


Incineration is another method that has been used to deal with an excessive amount of waste.

The problem with burning waste is that it contains chemicals which release greenhouse gases when they are burned.

The result here is again adding to the greenhouse effect and further accelerating global warming.

There are also arguments in favour of incineration as it generates energy and can be used to burn biomass which is far more ecologically friendly than fossil fuel sources such as oil and coal.

The Description of Waste in the Global Waste Management Outlook Completed By The United Nations Environment Programme

"Natural processes generate ‘residuals’, but these are generally broken down to regenerate raw materials that can go back into the cycle of nature. Human population growth, urbanization, intensive agriculture and industrialization have interfered with these natural cycles, both increasing the sheer volume of residuals and increasing their complexity and their content of hazardous chemicals. Drawing an analogy between the lifecycle of materials and products and the human body, traditional ‘end-of pipe’ waste management plays inter alia the role of the ‘kidney’, removing the contaminants from the materials flow through the ‘body’. Taking the analogy one step further, it is important to avoid overloading your kidneys by controlling what you eat and drink; so an important component of waste management is to control the flow or generation of wastes by appropriate up-stream actions on waste prevention.

The UN defines residuals as one of the six components of a comprehensive set of environmental statistics. This is then sub-divided into three parts: emissions to air, generation of wastewater and generation of waste.2 But the residuals from air pollution control and from wastewater treatment concentrate the contaminants into yet more ‘waste’ which is mainly disposed of to land. In other words, actions to reduce the impacts of the discharge of residuals to the atmosphere and water bodies concentrate the contaminants as waste to be dealt with elsewhere later. So waste management cannot be viewed in isolation – a holistic approach is required for residuals management, pollution control and environmental management. For such a holistic approach to work, policy and regulatory control, and the agencies in charge of each need to be integrated. While there are often ‘separate’ environmental control regimes for air, water, land and (solid) waste, the interfaces between them need to the strong. Otherwise, it could result in moving pollution from one receiving medium to another."

United Nation's Environment Program Solution To Waste As Per The Global Waste Management Outlook Document

Global Waste Management Outlook document states that "Traditional waste management has dealt with waste after it has been discarded. A more effective life-cycle approach suggests that the focus should shift upstream, aiming to tackle the problem at the source through the options at the ‘top’ of the waste hierarchy and through sustainable consumption and production practices: design out waste to prevent its generation; reduce both quantities and the use of hazardous substances; minimize; repair and reuse; prepare end-of-life products for reuse, including through ‘re-manufacture’ where required; and where residuals do occur, keep them concentrated and separate to preserve their intrinsic value for recycling and recovery and/or to prevent them from contaminating other waste that still has economic value for recovery. The idea is to move from ‘waste disposal’ to ‘waste management’ AND from ‘waste’ to ‘resource’ – hence the updated terminology ‘waste and resource management’ and ‘resource management’, as part of the ‘circular economy'".

Waste Management Hierarchy

Throwing Away What Still Works

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how waste is something that no longer has worth or has been thrown away despite still having worth.

The solution to the problem of waste lies in its definition. Society needs to stop throwing away materials and items that still have value just because they can afford to replace them.

Discarding what is no longer in vogue or an item that still has worth to replace it with a newer more up to date model is deeply rooted in our culture today.

Consumerism and materiality are what is driving the consumption of waste today into unprecedented figures.

The disposal of waste is not just a technical problem but a social problem also.

If peoples consumption habits and attitude towards waste changes, then the pressures on our environment as a result of dealing with them will gradually decrease too.

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