Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste


This Chapter of the course will analyze the culture of waste. This detailed description will explore the generation and treatment of waste. It will include the components of waste; where waste is generated; disposal and treatment of waste; and the effect of waste on the environment. We will explore the necessary details of hazardous waste management. As a transition, the major pathways and issues of recycling will be discussed. The final part of this Chapter will examine waste reduction and the “why” of waste. This will be accomplished by an analysis of nature’s closed waste cycle and a discussion of society’s open path for wastes; successful strategies for waste reduction will be illustrated by case studies. Important to this discussion is a contextual exploration of conservation including resources such as energy and water. Successful strategies for reduced consumption will be illustrated with cogent case studies. 


  • Waste generation
  • Waste treatment
  • Components of waste
  • Municipal waste
  • Solid waste
  • Hospital waste
  • Hazardous waste
  • Municipal wastewater
  • Biosolids
  • Plastic footprint
  • Recycling
  • Nature’s closed waste cycle
  • Society’s open path for waste
  • Ecosystem metabolism
  • Metabolism in society
  • Water reuse
  • Energy recovery from waste

Chapter Parts

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 1 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste

Part 1 - Solid Waste Generation in the Developed and Developing World

US map with municipal solid waste terms such as paper, bottles, cansNearly every human activity creates some kind of waste. As countries develop economically, socially, and technologically - industrializing, urbanizing, and expanding in population - waste generation increases. The problems associated with waste affect both developed and developing countries.

Globally, we live in “throw-away” societies in which we consume packaged products that often do not last past a single use or even a year, and we discard as waste what we no longer want. This wasteful lifestyle seriously impacts the environment, public health, and produces social and economic problems. Waste disposal can have serious environmental impacts: landfills consume land space, and cause air, water and soil pollution - including the emission of greenhouse gases, while incineration results in emissions of dangerous air pollutants. Our consumptive and often wasteful behavior needs to be examined, and changed, so that we can live more sustainably.

Global population rose to 6.9 billion in 2010 and the majority of people live in developing countries. A major challenge is how to manage the ever-increasing waste generated, especially in developing countries already lacking a sufficient public service infrastructure to manage municipal waste, and where poverty and unplanned settlements lead to unmanaged waste.

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Suggested Reading

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste. Municipal solid waste in the United States 2009 Facts and Figures. 2010 December.
  2. Blight G, Mbande, C. Some problems of waste management in developing countries.
    Journal of Solid Waste Technology and Management. 1996; 23 (1): 19-27.
  3. European Topic Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production. What is waste?

  4. United Nations Environment Programme Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics. Solid Waste Management Chapter III: Waste Quantities and Characteristics. 2005; 31-38.
  5. Eurostat Directorate-General of the European Commission. Waste statistics. 2011 May.

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 2 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste

Part 2 - Solid Waste Management in the Developed and Developing World

bulldozer on a municipal waste landfill pileToday, countries worldwide face a waste management crisis ― an estimated twelve point three billion tons of municipal solid waste were collected worldwide in 2011 ― the increasing quantity and complexity of waste associated with economic growth, industrialization, and urbanization poses serious problems, especially for developing countries. The rate of municipal solid waste generation is faster than that of urban population growth due to increasing consumption ― the demand for goods and services is driving production — especially products that are packaged and have short life-spans, resulting in waste and even more consumption. While product consumption benefits some businesses, the paradigm of boundless consumption as we are currently experiencing it, needs to change, since the waste produced is growing world problem with dramatic social and environmental impacts.

Waste disposal can have serious environmental impacts ― landfills are reaching capacity, consuming dwindling land space, and cause air, water and soil pollution including the emission of about five per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while incineration results in emissions of dangerous air pollutants. Improper, ineffective, and inefficient waste management negatively impacts health and the environment — resulting in pollution of the air, land and water, emission of greenhouse gases and toxic materials, and the loss of precious materials and resources. Waste streams from electronic equipment or e-waste, which contain hazardous materials, pose one of the biggest management challenges in both developed and developing countries. Such mixed municipal solid wastes, as well as hazardous wastes and some industrial wastes can impose serious health and ecological risks if uncollected or dumped in uncontrolled and unsecured landfill sites.

Solid waste management practices include waste prevention and re-use, waste collection, transport, and sorting, waste recycling and composting, waste treatment by incineration or chemical and biological processes, energy recovery, and waste disposal in landfills.


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  • waste
  • trash
  • refuse
  • rubbish
  • Integrated Solid Waste Management
  • landfill
  • waste picker
  • landfill leachate
  • landfill gas
  • solid waste
  • waste prevention
  • waste reduction
  • reuse
  • recycling
  • composting
  • incineration, with or without energy production
  • landfill methane

Suggested Reading

  1. United Nations Environment Programme. Developing Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan Volume 1: Waste Characterization and Quantification with Projections for Future. United Nations. 2009.
  2. World Bank Urban Development Division Waste Management Anchor Team. Observations of Solid Waste Landfills in Developing Countries: Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Washington (DC): The World Bank. 1999.
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Solid Waste Management: A Local Challenge With Global Impacts. May 2002. EPA Pub. No.:  530-F-02-026d.

  4. US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste. Municipal Solid Waste in the United States 2009: Facts and Figures. 2010 Dec.

(Photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider)

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 3 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste

Part 3 - Reduce Reuse Recycle

cardboard boxes with green recycling logoReducing, reusing, and recycling our waste has a positive impact on our waste generation, our waste management, and ultimately, our world. Our culture of waste will change if our attitudes and behaviors change to accelerate a new approach to the waste metabolism of our own human society. Solid waste heading to landfills, open dumps, and incinerators, is growing in complexity and quantity. It can be minimized with effective planning of community waste management support systems — like recycling centers — and more importantly, by our own personal actions. Remarkable examples such as Germany, demonstrate the community mobilization and technical feasibility for very high rates of waste reduction through recycling and composting. 

As landfills grow to capacity, especially in highly built and densely populated areas, we will be faced with limited options — all of them expensive — to effectively manage our waste while ensuring public health and environmental quality. A transition in the way we relate to the products we consume and the waste we create will save resources and create profits in resource reuse. We have choices, and our choices will create the landscape that we leave behind.  


  • waste reduction
  • waste prevention
  • source reduction
  • waste reuse
  • recycling
  • Integrated Solid Waste Management Hierarchy
  • landfill
  • incineration
  • mass burning
  • compost
  • anaerobic digestion
  • aerobic digestion
  • discards
  • biogas

Suggested Reading

  1. US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste. Municipal solid waste in the United States 2009 Facts and Figures. 2010.

  2. US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste. Solid Waste Management Hierarchy. 2011.

  3. US Environmental Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste. Combustion. 2011.

  4. European Commission Directorate-General for the Environment.  Waste. 2011.


(Photo credit: Peek Packaging Solutions, 2006)

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 4 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste

Part 4 - Hazardous Waste Management

HAZMAT sign FlammableHazardous waste is waste that poses substantial or potential threats to public health or the environment. In exposure scenarios, the amount of hazard is a function of the toxicity of the chemical or group of chemicals, and exposure, which is a function of concentration and time, and often physiological exposure route. Toxicity is determined using laboratory models, animal models, clinical case studies, quantitative structure-activity relationships, and safety factors that protect sensitive populations like children, as well as the food chain, water supplies, occupationally exposed workers, and the general biosphere. The goal of hazardous waste management is a reduction in the toxicity, mobility, or volume of a hazardous substance.

The impact on the environment relates mainly to toxic contamination of soil, water and air. Hazardous waste is mostly generated by industrial activities and driven by specific patterns of production. Hazardous waste represents a major concern as it entails serious environmental risks if poorly managed. The impact on the environment relates mainly to toxic contamination of soil, water and air. The majority of hazardous waste is managed separately from municipal solid waste; however, waste from household products containing hazardous materials that enters the municipal solid waste stream is referred to as household hazardous waste.


  • hazardous waste generation
  • hazardous waste management
  • household hazardous waste
  • listed wastes
  • characteristic wastes
  • mixed wastes
  • universal wastes
  • Resource Conservation and Reocvery Act (RCRA)
  • Atomic Energy Act (AEA)
  • Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)
  • RCRA Subtitle C Wastes
  • flammable waste
  • corrosive waste
  • reactive waste
  • toxic waste
  • infectious/pathogenic waste
  • F List waste
  • K List waste
  • P List waste
  • U List waste
  • M List waste
  • low level mixed waste (LLMW)
  • low level radioactive waste (LLRW)
  • high level mixed waste (HLW)
  • mixed transuranic waste (MTRU)

Suggested Reading

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 5 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - A Culture of Waste

Part 5: E-Waste

Electronic waste, e-waste, e-scrap, or Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) is the discarded waste stream of our modern digital lifestyle. Electronic waste is a growing component of our global waste stream. Current estimates put the total e-waste mass in the tens of billions of tons, and it is growing. Presently, UNEP estimates e-waste is 3-4% of the waste stream, however some projections suggest this will grow to 10%. E-waste is recycled in formal and informal operations worldwide and the waste is harvested for its bounty of valuable and semi-valuble metals, salvageable components, and plastics. Informal waste recycling in developing countries is of great concern because of the toxic materials in e-waste and the hazardous operations involved in the salvage.

International actions have included the Basel Ban on export of toxic waste, but the international trade in waste electronics continues, and many areas in the developing world with significant e-waste operations are experiencing impacts to public health and environmental contamination. Mercury, lead, dioxins, and flame retardants have contaminated informal e-waste operations and the workers who labor in the waste of others.




  • Electronic waste
  • E-waste
  • E-scrap
  • Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)
  • E-trade
  • Cyanidation
  • Mercury amalgamation
  • Acid baths
  • Solder cooking
  • Mercury
  • Minamata disease
  • Lead
  • PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers)
  • Flame retardants
  • Dioxins (polychlorinated dibenzodioxins)

Suggested Reading

  1. Minimizing Hazardous Wastes: A Simplified Guide to the Basel Convention


Image Source: Cell phone composition. (2006). In UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. Retrieved 20:07, July 21, 2011 from

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste, Part 6 | Principles of Sustainability | University of Idaho

Chapter 3 - The Culture of Waste

Part 6 - Our Plastic Footprint

plastic garbage on beachOur culture of waste is most directly seen in our plastic footprint. The same qualities that make plastic a remarkable material, also contribute to its challenges as a waste material and a source of environmental pollution. The plastic we find in the oceans may be there, largely unchanged, for decades of centuries, with an impact to a marine ecosystem, we once thought too large to ever suffer irreversible damage from human activity. 

As well, the chemical properties of many plastics contribute to risk concerns in highly contaminated environments and in human food chain exposures. A significant contingent of the research community, and a substantial body of published research suggests that human food and water contaminated by chemicals from plastics is a risk to health, with linkages to endocrine disruption and a myriad of diseases. That these chemicals from plastics are found in human tissues is now clear, even if the linkage to human disease is confounding and difficult to establish beyond correlation.   

The future of any oil based product, like plastic, is certain to be difficult and expensive as a result of a future of declining oil reserves. Many consider the solution is to embrace a cultural shift away from our single serving, single use mentality. Establishing a composting program like Germany in the European Union so that Bioplastics can actually be composted, is a clear choice for communities and for packaging manufacturers. 

That we transform the cycle of consumption is key, but there is a need for new materials sourced for biodegradation and ease of recycling, and as individual and communities, we need to recycle. Our own personal choices will help define the advance or retreat, from our society’s plastic footprint. 

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  • plastic
  • bioplastic
  • thermosetting plastics
  • thermoplastics
  • polyurethane (PU), epoxide (EP), phenol-formaldehyde or phenolic ( PF), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE/Teflon), unsaturated polyester resins (UP), melamine formaldehyde (MF), silicone (SI), Polyimide (PI).
  • polyethylene (PE), polystyrene (PS), expanded polystyrene (EPS),   polyvinylchloride (PVC), polycarbonate (PC),polyethylene terephthalate (PET),  polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), polypropylene (PP), polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
  • bisphenol A (BPA)
  • marine debris
  • plastic footprint
  • durable goods
  • non-durable goods
  • containers and packaging
  • plastic resin pellets (nurdles)
  • Resin Identification Code
  • polylactic acid (PLA)
  • polyhydroxy-alkanoate (PHA)


  1. Moore, Charles J. (2008) “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat.” Environmental Research. 108:2 pp. 131-139.
  2. 5Gyres Institute
  3. Algalita Marine Research Institute


(Photo: courtesy of Algalita Marine Research Foundation)