Waste management is a uniquely human problem. It is a problem that was developed hand in hand with the evolution of humans as a species. The change from small nomadic tribes to villages, towns, and cities where humans specialize in particular areas and use commerce to provide for other needs developed a producer and consumer society that has an inevitable byproduct of waste. The improper management of this waste has caused greater threats to Homo sapiens sapiens for survival than any other crisis faced.
Improper disposal of waste led to the “Black Death” that swept across Europe in the 14th century. As the most concentrated areas of civilization in the world at that time, the lack of waste management resulted in the estimated death of 25 million (with estimates of 30%-60% of the total population in some areas) dying. This example of catastrophic consequence however could be dwarfed by the potential of climate change to result in the 6th mass extinction in the Earths 4 billion year history if left unchecked indefinitely.
While it is easy to incite the naysayers with such cataclysmic predictions, the science of climate change has been proven far too many time for sane dispute that it exists. If you accept that it does in fact exist as 97% of scientists do, then debating the results really is only a debate of at what point the world economies and basic infrastructure is destroyed enough to curtail continued change as a natural consequence.
Climate change is the result of the accumulation of greenhouse gasses. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent, but CH4 or methane contributes 20% of the total human caused greenhouse effect and is 23x as powerful as a greenhouse gas. Further it breaks down over time in the atmosphere into carbon dioxide so even after it is fully decayed the resultant carbon dioxide continues. The primary sources of excess methane as a contributor (it occurs naturally as well but human development has greatly accelerated its presence) is the decay of organic waste in landfills, livestock production, and in the production and transport of coal and natural gas.
The control and reduction of municipal solid waste (MSW) is a key to the reduction of methane as a greenhouse gas, as well as to preserving the quality of groundwater for drinking and agricultural use. This reduction is primarily through the use of recycling, reduced generation, and more efficient disposal. From 1960 until 1990, the per capita generation of MSW increased from 2.68 lbs. of waste per day per person in the US, to 4.57 lbs. per day, an increase of over 70% per person. This rampant increase in garbage produced by each person has declined slightly since then, by about 4% to 4.38 lbs. as of 2012.
The storage and management of the storage of waste is more critical than ever. The percentage of waste recycled has gone from under 6% in 1960 to nearly 35% as of 2012. This increase in recycling has many direct benefits of lowering both volume of waste to dispose of and conservation of natural resources and the energy used to refine those natural resources.
In addition to the standard recycling, a growing trend towards the reuse and repurposing of products even further reduces the volume of waste to be managed. This makes the storage of waste products more manageable. By adding energy recovery projects to the landfills and storage areas of MSW’s, not only is there a tangible energy benefit, but a substantial reduction of methane released as a greenhouse gas.