Waste pollution is one of the broadest social and environmental issues.
There’s many different types of waste, different ways that waste can pollute the environment, and a range of effects that waste pollution can have across society.
In this guide, we summarise what waste pollution is, identify the different types of waste, and outline the causes, sources, effects and potential solutions to waste pollution.
(Note – if you prefer, you can read specifically about plastic waste pollution in this guide)
Summary – Waste Pollution
Waste pollution usually involves used or unwanted material, substances or chemicals entering the environment, and causing some type of negative impact (on the environment, wild life & living organisms, human and human health, or the economy)
Because there is many different ways to categorise the different types of waste, different ways to measure the impact of waste pollution, and waste pollution can occur in different environments and regions – each individual case of waste pollution needs to be assessed separately, considering the different variables for each case
Two of the broadest categories of waste might be municipal (household) waste and industrial waste.
Although, sometimes commercial waste, and agricultural waste are used alongside these broad categories to further differentiate waste
Within each of these broad categories, waste can be sub categorised as well. For example, municipal waste may include general waste (solids and liquids), recyclable, organic/green, and hazardous waste. Industrial waste can be categorised by the sector or industry it comes from – agriculture, mining, construction and demolition, and so on.
Another way waste could be classified is based on it’s properties – solid, liquid, gas, organic, and hazardous/toxic
Waste can also be categorised as human waste, or natural waste (from animals and plant life)
Each different type of waste is generated in different quantities.
As one example, industrial waste, according to some estimations, makes up 97% of total waste, and municipal waste only 3% in the US. Other estimates indicate industrial waste makes up half of total waste generated globally yearly
As another example, paper can be the most common waste material found in some municipalities, and construction and mining waste can be found most common in some industrial waste mixes
Developed countries might produce more waste per capita than developing countries (but, might have more secure waste management systems)
Some estimates say solid waste generation will triple globally by 2100, before peaking and declining. Waste generation can be heavily impacted by population growth, waste reduction efforts, and changes in consumption.
However, cities like San Francisco are trying to pursue ‘zero waste’ goals by 2020 – so, solid waste generation can be city and region specific (although there can be costs to certain waste prevention and management strategies)
Each different type of waste is disposed of and/or contained, treated and ultimately managed differently
Each different type of waste has a different contribution to and impact on waste pollution.
Although some types of waste are generated and polluted in much higher quantities than others by weight, other types of waste might be highly toxic or hazardous and can cause much more harm when polluted into a specific environment than non hazardous or non toxic solid waste. This is especially true when it comes to different wastes and pollutants contributing to water pollution
Waste pollution can occur via a single point/source, or via dispersed/multiple points or sources (for example, agricultural runoff of pesticides and fertilizers might pollute various water sources at multiple points)
There’s many different causes for waste pollution – the mismanagement (littering and inadequate disposal) of waste, the inadequate treatment of waste, and the improper containment of waste are three major examples (but there are many more). Waste pollution can even occur at the usage stage of a material’s lifecycle e.g. the photodegradation of plastic into microplastics
It can be difficult to fully accurately report on waste quantities, and the extent of impact that waste pollution has (for different reasons to do with waste generation and disposal data collection, and measuring waste pollution)
There are general solutions that will help address several types of waste pollution
But, solutions to waste pollution need to be waste specific and location specific (to where the pollution is happening) too.
Just as one example, plastic pollution may be addressed in a major way by investing in effective waste collection and management systems in countries and regions where plastic pollution rates from mismanaged pollution are the highest. Although, this is just one example of one solution for one type of waste pollution.
As mentioned above – waste pollution is an incredibly broad issue, so, it requires a breakdown into the different categories and sub categories of waste pollution to get an accurate picture of the specific problems, causes, sources, effects, and solutions (e.g. an assessment of plastic pollution in a specific city, in a specific country)
Certain solid wastes like plastic are expected to see an increase in waste generation rates into the future globally, in line with population growth and urbanization. Waste pollution rates will depend in part on how effectively we manage waste into the future
What Is Waste?
Waste can be man made (comes from humans), or natural waste (comes from animals and plant life)
For the purposes of waste pollution, we are usually concerned with man made waste
Man made waste is materials or substances we have used, and no longer want or need anymore, or that has become unusable
Types & Categories Of Waste
There’s many different ways waste can be classified by type, or categorised.
The main way might be dividing waste up into municipal waste, and industrial waste (commercial waste can sometimes be another main category):
Municipal waste (or Municipal Solid Waste as it’s referred to) – is waste that discarded from the public, and from our households. Examples are food, paper, plastic, yard trimmings, and so on.
Industrial waste – comes from industrial activity, such as from mines, factories, mills, workshops and so on.
Examples are mining (rubble, topsoil), agriculture (fertilisers, pesticides, animal waste), food processing (plastics, paper, food waste), textiles, metal manufacture, and construction and demolition wastes (plasterboard, bricks, concrete etc.).
Commercial waste is sometimes described as another division of waste, and is ‘waste from premises used mainly for the purposes of a trade or business or for the purpose of sport, recreation, education or entertainment, but excluding household, agricultural or industrial waste’ (en.wikipedia.org).
But, commercial waste is not as often outlined in waste reporting, so, municipal and industrial waste are usually more prominent.
Other ways waste might be classified by type, or categorised, might be:
Man made/human vs natural waste (natural waste comes from animals and plant life)
Solid vs liquid vs gaseous waste
Hazardous/toxic (usually has one or more of the following traits – toxic/poisonous, ignitable, corrosive, or reactive/explosive) vs non hazardous/non toxic waste
By material (plastic, paper, wood, etc.)
By sub categories – for example, municipal waste can be sub categorised into general waste, recyclable, green/organic, and hazardous (although each municipality has their own way of categorising and sorting waste for waste management). Industrial waste can be sub categorised by the sector or industry, such as agriculture, mining, construction and demolition, and so on
Special waste (waste that has a unique regulatory requirement, or is unique in some way … some sources classify special waste as hazardous waste, but, not all hazardous waste is special waste even though some of it is … clinical and related waste, asbestos waste, and waste tyres might be 3 examples of special waste – but, it can differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and in different States and countries. Read more in the EPA NSW resources in the sources list)
One list of some of the different individual types of waste might look like this (not fully comprehensive):
- Agricultural waste
- Animal by-products
- Biodegradable waste
- Biomedical waste
- Bulky waste
- Business waste
- Chemical waste
- Clinical waste
- Coffee wastewater
- Commercial waste
- Composite waste
- Construction and demolition waste (C&D waste)
- Consumable waste
- Controlled waste
- Demolition waste
- Dog waste
- Domestic waste
- Electronic waste (e-waste)
- Food waste
- Gaseous wastes
- Green waste
- Grey water
- Hazardous waste
- Household waste
- Household hazardous waste
- Human waste
- Sewage sludge
- Industrial waste
- Fly ash
- Inert waste
- Inorganic waste
- Kitchen waste
- Liquid waste
- Marine debris
- Medical waste
- Metabolic waste
- Mineral waste
- Mixed waste
- Municipal solid waste
- Nuclear waste (see Radioactive waste)
- Organic waste
- Packaging waste
- Post-consumer waste
- Radioactive waste
- Low level waste
- High level waste
- Mixed waste (radioactive/hazardous)
- Spent nuclear fuel
- Recyclable waste
- Residual waste
- Retail hazardous waste
- Sharps waste
- Ship disposal
- Slaughterhouse waste
- Special waste
Note that some types of waste can fit into multiple categories. For example, plastic waste can be produced by both industrial activity as well as the general public. Another example is that radioactive waste can come from nuclear power plants, but, also households and also commercial buildings because ‘some home smoke detectors … contain very small amounts of radioactive isotope americium’ (wikipedia.org).
Waste Quantities & Waste % Share, By Waste Type Or Category
Collecting data for, and reporting on waste quantities or % shares from the different waste categories has several challenges. Industrial waste in particular is difficult to gather data for and report accurately.
However, below are some totals and %’s across industrial, municipal and other categories in different cities, countries, and regions (these numbers can be used as general estimates):
Municipal vs Industrial Waste In The US
- … the U.S. produces around 236 million tons of municipal solid waste every year
- … the numbers for industrial waste are far less clear. Some estimates go as high as 7.6 billion tons of industrial waste produced every year.
Several sources say that the municipal to industrial waste ratio in the US is about 97% industrial, and 3% municipal.
Industrial Waste Globally
- Industrial waste makes up to half of the total amount of waste that the world generates each and every year (ewastedisposal.blogspot.com)
Most common Municipal Solid Waste generated in 2015 in the US was:
- Paper and paperboard – 25.9%
- Food – 15.1%
- Yard Trimmings – 13.2%
- Plastics – 13.1%
- Metals – 9.1%
- Wood – 6.2%
- Textiles – 6.1%
- Glass – 4.4%
- Rubber and Leather – 3.2%
- Other – 2.0%
- Miscellaneous Inorganic Waste – 1.5%
The total generation of municipal solid waste in 2015 was 262.4 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) of MSW in 2015, approximately 3.5 million tons more than the amount generated in 2014. MSW generated in 2015 increased to 4.48 pounds per person per day. This is an increase from the 259 million tons generated in 2014 and the 208.3 million tons in 1990.
In 2009, the City of Chicago had the following split:
- Paper – 29.5%
- Organics – 29%
- Plastic – 12.5%
- Private Construction & Demolition – 12%
- Textiles – 6.2%
- Glass – 4.9%
- Metals – 3.9%
- Inorganics – 1.1%
- Water Bottles & Coated Milk Cartons – 0.8%
All Waste Types
Waste generation in EU-28 in 2012 by sector was:
- Construction – 33%
- Mining & Quarrying – 29%
- Manufacturing – 11%
- Households – 8%
- Waste Treatment – 7%
- Services – 5%
- Energy Supply – 4%
- Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing – 2%
- Wholesale Of Waste & Scrap – 1%
- Water Treatment – 1%
Estimated Total Annual Waste by Sector in the UK in 2004 was:
- Construction & Demolition – 31.7%
- Mining & Quarrying – 28.8%
- Industrial – 12.5%
- Commercial – 12.3%
- Household – 9.5%
- Dredged Materials – 4.7%
- Sewage Sludge – 0.6%
- Agriculture (inc. Fishing) – 0.2%
In 2009, the City of Chicago generated the following %’s of waste from these sectors:
- Construction & Demolition Debris – 59%
- Private Industrial, Commercial, Institutional & Multi Unit Residential – 26%
- Residential With 4 Units Or Less – 15%
In 2008, total waste generation in the EU-27 by sector was
- Construction – 32.9%
- Mining – 27.8%
- Manufacturing – 13.1%
- Household – 8.5%
- Waste & Water Management – 7.3%
- Other Sectors – 5.3%
- Energy Sector – 3.5%
- Agriculture/Forestry – 1.7%
In 2008, total waste generation in the EU-27 by type of waste/waste material was:
- Mineral Waste/Soils – 65%
- Household Wastes – 7.7%
- Other Wastes – 6.5%
- Combustion Wastes – 6%
- Animal and Vegetable Waste – 4.4%
- Metallic Wastes – 3.8%
- Wood Wastes – 2.6%
- Paper and Cardboard Wastes – 2.2%
- Sorting Residues – 1.7%
In 2015-15, Australia produced the equivalent of:
- 565 kg per capita of municipal waste,
- 831 kg of construction and demolition waste,
- 459 kg of fly ash,
- and 849 kg of other commercial and industrial waste.
The EPA in Ireland also keeps stats on municipal, packaging, electrical and electronic equipment, end of life vehicles, tyres, hazardous materials, composting and anaerobic waste, construction and demolition, waste infrastructure and generation and treatment
Waste Generated, By Country
Waste generated by different countries can be measured by total tonnage of waste, waste per capita, and so on.
Developed vs Developing Regions
Developed countries produce more waste per capita because they have higher levels of consumption. There are higher proportions of plastics, metals, and paper in the municipal solid waste stream
Developing nations produce lower levels of waste per capita with a higher proportion of organic material in the municipal solid waste stream. If measured by weight, organic (biodegradable) residue constitutes at least 50% of waste in developing countries
Other Countries & Regions
The US may have a much higher per capita municipal waste rate than other countries:
The US represents just 4% of the world’s population, but it produces 12% of global municipal solid waste. In comparison, China and India make up more than 36% of the world’s population and generate 27% of that waste (theguardian.com)
OECD countries (the most developed countries in the world, produce a lot of the waste in the world.
These are 2013 figures of municipal waste generation per capita in some of the top waste generating countries in the OECD group:
- Denmark – 751kg (per person)
- United States – 725kg
- Switzerland – 712kg
- Australia – 647kg
- Germany – 614kg
- Ireland – 587kg
- France – 530kg
- Netherlands – 525kg
- United Kingdom – 494kg
- Italy – 484kg
- Spain – 455kg
- Turkey – 407kg
- Canada – 403kg
- South Korea – 358kg
- Japan – 354kg
– Forbes.com, and cmaecocycle.net
You can see a full world map here showing waste per capita levels by country (eco2greetings.com)
Some of what they said is:
The top producers of waste are said to be small and island nations including:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- St. Kitts and Nevis
- Sri Lanka
According to eC02 Greetings, in places such as Antigua, Barbados and St. Kitts, a large majority of waste is accumulated due to tourism. It added that of these countries do not have the necessary infrastructure for proper sanitation and waste removal.
The top producers in the developed world were said to be:
- New Zealand
- United States
Waste generation by region %’s are:
- OECD region – 44%
- East Asia & The Pacific – 21%
- Latin America & The Caribbean – 12%
- Eastern & Central Asia – 7%
- Middle East & North Africa – 6%
- South Asia – 5%
- Africa – 5%
Overall, Worldbank found:
- MSW (municipal solid waste) generation levels are expected to double by 2025 (due to population growth)
- The higher the income level and rate of urbanization, the greater the amount of solid waste produced.
- OECD countries produce almost half of the world’s waste, while Africa and South Asia regions produce the least waste.
You can read more in Worldbank’s Waste Generation chapter of their knowledge paper
The Different Waste Disposal Options & Types Of Waste Management
Municipal waste is the responsibility of the municipalities, and is usually collected by private waste collection contractors, with some waste collection services performed by the local council.
Industrial waste is the responsibility of the organisation or party producing the waste, and usually has to be collected by a specially licensed industrial waste collection contractor.
Once waste is collected, there’s four main waste management/disposal options:
Some types of waste are an exception to these key disposal options.
For example, waste water may be treated and re-used or released/discharged. Nuclear waste may be contained and managed, or permanently buried deep in the ground (world-nuclear.org).
So, waste management can be specific to individual waste types.
Which Disposal Option Waste Goes To
Some municipal waste management disposal stats are:
In 2015, these are the disposal stats for Municipal Solid Waste in the US:
- 52.5% went to Landfill
- 25.8% went to recycling
- 12.8% went to Combustion with Energy Recovery
- and 8.9% went to Composting
In 2014-15, Australia had the following waste stats:
- 64 Megatonnes of waste generated
- 35 Megatonnes went to recycling
- 27 Megatonnes went to landfill
- 2.3 Megatonnes went to energy recovery, which is burning waste and capturing the gas energy
Industrial Waste Management
Sources that talk specifically about industrial waste management include:
- Industrial Waste (Wikipedia.org)
- Industrial Waste (epa.nsw.gov.au)
- Industrial Waste Management (recoverusa.com)
Plastic Waste Management
Different types of individual waste can also end up being sent to different waste management/disposal options in different % share ratios.
Using plastic waste as one example:
- In 2015, an estimated 55 percent of global plastic waste was discarded, 25 percent was incinerated, and 20 percent recycled [globally].
- If we extrapolate historical trends through to 2050 … by 2050, incineration rates would increase to 50 percent; recycling to 44 percent; and discarded waste would fall to 6 percent.
- However, note that this is based on the simplistic extrapolation of historic trends and does not represent concrete projections.
Going one step further than that, different types of plastic, and different plastic products are recycled more than others (for example, plastic types #1 and #2 may be more widely recycled than other types of plastic, and plastic bottles may be recycled more than mixed plastic trays).
And, recycling rates can even change between countries and regions – for example, the US generally has far lower plastic recycling rates than some regions in Europe (roughly 9% compared to 30% in some regions).
So, there’s many variables as to where different materials and products/items end up being disposed.
In addition to this, different countries and cities have different waste management systems, facilities and technology that are all capable of different things.
As two examples, San Francisco has one of the most advanced waste management systems in the world, and, there’s a stark difference between waste management in developed high income countries, and developing lower income countries.
Eco Impact Of Different Waste Disposal Options
Landfills are among the biggest contributors to soil pollution – roughly 80% of the items buried in landfills could be recycled (rubiconglobal.com)
Value Of Waste Management To Economy
It’s also worth noting that waste management as a sector is worth a considerable amount to the economy. In 2016, it was worth around $70 billion dollars in the US. Read a full breakdown at nrra.net
What Is Waste Pollution?
Waste pollution is when used or unwanted materials, chemicals or substances are disposed of, and create some type of negative impact or change
The impact could be on the environment, humans and human health, wild life and living organisms, the economy, or even something as simple as change to aesthetics
How Does Waste Pollution Happen?
The waste life cycle starts with waste being generated.
It’s realistic to point to waste generation rates, which stem from consumption rates, population growth, industrialisation, economic growth, and other factors – as the basis for for how waste pollution happens at it’s original source.
But, once waste has been generated, waste pollution can happen via a number of ways, and some of the main ways might be:
Littering (in the case of plastic, this is assumed to be a rate of littering of 2 percent of total plastic waste generation across all countries according to ourworldindata.org)
Inadequate disposal of waste (e.g. an open/uncontained waste dumping site, a landfill that leaks leachate or solid debris, an incineration plant that doesn’t have adequate emissions or air contaminant technology or devices, organic matter releasing methane in a landfill, and so on)
Direct/intentional dumping or discharging of waste into the environment
Loss of waste directly into the environment (e.g. lost fishing equipment)
Waste not being treated adequately, and then being disposed of, discharged or released into the environment (waste water is one example, and nuclear waste is another)
Special types of waste not being managed, contained or buried adequately (such as some types of long term hazardous nuclear waste)
The break down, degradation, or loss of part of a material, chemical or substance while still in the usage stage (plastic is an example of this – photodegradation can release microplastics from plastic furniture, and washing synthetic fibre clothing can release microplastics into the waste/grey water stream)
A lack of waste pollution or waste management laws and regulations, or enforcement of those laws and regulations can contribute to the above.
Waste pollution may also occur from a single stream or source, or, it can happen from multiple sources (dispersed sources).
One example of dispersed sources is pesticides leaching via various points into the surrounding soil, water sources and wild life. This is in comparison to say a sewage pipeline that may have one treatment and discharge point.
Where Does Waste Pollution Happen?
The two main locations waste pollution may occur are:
On land – land based waste pollutes freshwater sources, soil (and plant life), and/or the air and atmosphere
In the ocean – both land based waste, and/or marine based waste pollutes the sea
Waste Pollution On Land
There are many ways waste pollution takes place on land. Just a few examples are:
The run off of pesticides and fertilizers into fresh water sources, causing water pollution
Leachate leaking from a landfill site that isn’t lined adequately, which causes soil contamination
Emission of methane from organic matter decomposing in landfill sites
Emission of air pollutants from waste that is burnt at incineration plants
Direct discharge of industrial waste into soil or fresh water sources
Waste Pollution In The Ocean
Some of the types of waste and ways that waste pollution in the ocean occurs are:
- [Plastic pollution from rivers, water ways, beaches, plastic washing and blowing into the ocean, and marine plastic (such as ghost fishing gear) being dumped or lost into the ocean from fishing boats and other vessels
- Run off of toxins like pesticides and fertilizers used on farms
- Illegal dumping of industrial, nuclear and other waste into oceans
- Dumping of dredged material, industrial waste, sewage sludge, and radioactive waste into the ocean (Rivers, canals, and harbors are dredged to remove silt and sand buildup or to establish new waterways). About 20-22% of dredged material is dumped into the ocean … and, About 10% of all dredged material is polluted with heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and chromium, hydrocarbons such as heavy oils, nutrients including phosphorous and nitrogen, and organochlorines from pesticides
- Releasing of hazardous chemicals into sewers which find their way sometimes untreated into the ocean
- [Oil spills from oil tankers]
Pollution By Waste Type (Most Commonly Polluted Waste)
The type of waste responsible for the most pollution depends on how you measure pollution, and also where the pollution occurs.
For example, you could measure pollution in the ocean by quantity of debris, or, you could measure pollution in the ocean by the level or extent of harmful impact a particular type of waste has.
With a specific type of waste, sub types of that waste could be more responsible for pollution than others. One example of this is plastic, where certain types of plastic may be more problematic and harmful than others in different ways.
A few examples of pollution by waste type and location:
Most Common Debris & Litter Found On Land, In Rivers, & On Beaches
Cigarette butts, plastic packaging and other plastic products and items, paper bags, glass bottles and aluminum cans are some of the most commonly found littered items (according to rubbish cleanup surveys).
In reality though, agricultural waste (like pesticides and fertilizers), and industrial waste are responsible for a lot of soil contamination and water pollution via dispersed source pollution.
A lot of this pollution can be harder to measure though (although there are some good infographics online that detail all the ways waste pollution can occur to the different parts of the environment and natural resources via the different sources of waste pollution)
Most Common Waste Found In Oceans
About 60%-80% of all marine debris is composed of plastic [this includes oceans and beaches]
The most toxic waste material dumped into the ocean includes dredged material, industrial waste, sewage sludge, and radioactive waste.
Dredging contributes about 80% of all waste dumped into the ocean
So, it’s important to measure both quantity and toxicity. Read more about ocean and beach waste in this guide.
Waste Pollution By Country (& Region)
The country or region responsible for the most waste pollution depends on the specific type of waste, and where the waste is polluted (ocean, rivers, land, etc.).
A few examples:
A high share of the world’s ocean plastics pollution has its origin in Asia. China contributes the highest share of mismanaged plastic waste with around 28 percent of the global total. East Asia and the Pacific lead all regions at 60%
A large majority of rivers that carry plastic into the ocean are located in Asia (about 86%). China is home to the River Yangtze – the top plastic polluting river by plastic input into the ocean in the world
In addition to this, plastic is littered at an assumed rate across all countries of ‘roughly an average of 2% of total plastic waste generation’ (ourworldindata.org)
From statista.com: ‘In 2010, 8.8 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from China with an estimated 3.53 million metric tons of it ending up in the ocean. A total of 3.2 million metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste came from Indonesia and it is estimated that 1.29 million metric tons became plastic marine debris. The United States is also guilty of polluting oceans with plastic, but at a much lower level than China. Annually, 0.11 million metric tons of waterborne plastic garbage comes from the United States’
Developing countries may contribute to waste water pollution at a higher % of their total waste water generation, but developed countries can still contribute to waste water pollution significantly when looking at totals.
Even if waste water is treated in a developed country – the treatment may not be adequate to remove contaminants and pollutants fully. A few stats on waste water pollution globally and by country:
Globally, 80% of wastewater flows back into the ecosystem without being treated or reused (unwater.org)
Wastewater from factories, power plants and other industrial activities is extensively regulated in developed nations, and treatment is required before discharge to surface waters (wikipedia.org)
Mainly in low-income areas of cities and towns within developing countries, a large proportion of wastewater is discharged directly into the closest surface water drain or informal drainage channel, sometime without or with very little treatment (unwater.org)
Even in cities where wastewater is collected and treated, the efficiency of treatment may vary according to the system used (unwater.org)
In 2009 in Europe and North America, water consumption by industries was 50% as compared to 4-12% in developing countries [and, so industrial waste water pollution totals may have potential to be greater in developed countries] (unwater.org)
Each year 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste are dumped into US water (seametrics.com)
In developing countries, 70 percent of industrial wastes are dumped untreated into waters, polluting the usable water supply (seametrics.com)
More than 80% of sewage in developing countries is discharged untreated, polluting rivers, lakes and coastal areas (seametrics.com)
More than 70 percent of China’s rivers and lakes are polluted, government reports have said, and almost half may contain water that is unfit for human consumption or contact (seametrics.com)
Causes Of Waste Pollution
The causes for waste pollution are waste specific, and also specific to the environment and geographic location where the pollution occurs.
A few examples:
For example, plastic pollution on land is caused by the release of plastic micro fibres from various sources, and also the littering of plastic items, particularly plastic packaging (which has a high waste rate).
Plastic pollution in the ocean is caused by some of the land based sources (micro plastics and plastic packaging flow into the ocean), but also by marine waste – such as dumping and loss of ghost gear and fishing equipment into the sea.
Waste water pollution pollutes the water when waste water or sewage is introduced to surface water (rivers, lakes, etc) or ground water without being adequately treated to purify the waste water, or remove any harmful contaminants or impurities.
There could be numerous reasons waste water isn’t treated, including but not limited to inadequate treatment systems and processes, cost and time required, or a lack of regulations/laws (or enforcement of those regulations and laws) around the adequate treatment of waste water.
Waste water encompasses water use across a range of sectors of society, as well as sewage. Waste water can come from (unwater.org):
- In addition to household effluent and human waste, urban-based hospitals and industries such as small-scale mining and motor garages, often dump highly toxic chemicals and medical waste into the wastewater system
- [different industries, and also agriculture]
- [there’s many parts of society in the household, industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors responsible for waste water]
Mine tailings can contain a range of toxic and harmful chemicals, and can pollute the environment via leaching and via direct dumping into surface or ground water sources.
Effects/Impact Of Waste Pollution (On The Environment, Wildlife & Animals, The Economy, & Humans & Human Health)
The effects and impact of waste pollution are waste specific, and also specific to the environment and geographic location where the pollution occurs (for example, toxic industrial sludge dumped in the ocean has a very different impact than plastic debris in the ocean).
Waste pollution can impact all areas of society in different ways – the environment (soil, water, air pollution), humans and human health, wild life and living organisms, economy, and aesthetics.
A few examples:
The impact of plastic pollution on land is not as definitive – particularly when it comes to the long term impact of micro plastics.
In the ocean, plastic can be ingested by many different marine species, as well as cause entanglement (in fishing nets, fishing lines, etc.)
Plastic also costs money to clean up (it’s often more expensive to remove 1kg of plastic compared to the re-sale value of that 1kg of plastic), and can cause losses to the economy and specific industries – such as the tourism and fishing industries.
One impact/effect of waste water pollution is water pollution (when polluted waste water enters a non polluted water source).
Waste water pollutes water when it contains enough contaminants or impurities to negatively impact the ecosystem or wild life and living organisms in an aquatic environment, or, if the water becomes unfit for human exposure or consumption.
It could also refer to the general degradation in quality of that water.
From ICMM.com: ‘If not managed properly, tailings can have a damaging impact on the environment and human health and safety, with pollution from effluent and dust emissions being potentially toxic to humans, animals or plants. This harm is multiplied many times over should a tailings storage facility physically fail. Flooding from tailings materials can greatly damage the surrounding environment and even lead to loss of human life’
Secondary Effects & Compounding Effects Of Waste
Creating waste in the first instance can lead to secondary effects and compounding effects.
One example of this is anytime there is air pollution caused by waste, like the burning of waste at incineration plants. Primary air pollutants can mix and create secondary air pollutants, which can lead to issues such as acid rain, acidification, and so on.
Impact Of Poorly Managed Waste On Developing Or Low Income Regions
- Compared to those in developed nations, residents in developing countries, especially the urban poor, are more severely impacted by unsustainably managed waste.
- In low and middle-income countries, waste is often disposed in unregulated dumps or openly burned. These practices create serious health, safety, and environmental consequences. Poorly managed waste serves as a breeding ground for disease vectors, contributes to global climate change through methane generation, and even promotes urban violence.
- Managing waste properly is essential for building sustainable and liveable cities, but it remains a challenge for many developing countries and cities.
- Effective waste management is expensive, often comprising 20%–50% of municipal budgets. Operating this essential municipal service requires integrated systems that are efficient, sustainable, and socially supported.
Solutions To Waste Pollution
Some solutions to waste pollution are general and may work for most waste types. Some of those general solutions may include:
Reducing waste at the waste generation stage – by understanding that population growth, over consumption and changes in consumption, and focus on waste reduction all heavily impact the amount of waste being generated
Investing in more effective and more efficient waste collection systems, and waste management facilities and technology to reduce mismanaged waste. Organisations like World Bank invest in Solid Waste Management projects worldwide – you can read more about it at worldbank.org
Organising waste collection streams in a way that leads to better and more efficient waste processing and disposal of specific types of waste (e.g. to help the most recyclable materials like paper and cardboard achieve a higher recycling rate)
Businesses and industrial organisations are some of the parties that can make some of the most impact on reducing waste pollution by having adequate and effective waste management systems in place (e.g. having a strong cardboard recycling program for businesses – recoverusa.com)
Investing in adequate waste treatment and containment processes (especially waste water treatment)
Have adequate laws and regulations for waste pollution, and enforcement of these laws and regulations
Understanding where refusing, reducing, re-using, recycling, re-purposing, re-selling and repairing waste can be beneficial i.e. contributing more to a circular economy
Better public education and awareness on how waste is generated, waste is properly disposed of and managed, and waste pollution occurs
Other solutions to waste pollution are waste specific, and also specific to the environment and geographic location where the pollution occurs.
A few examples:
These solutions might centre around addressing plastic littering, having effective and adequate plastic waste management systems and facilities across all countries (particular high polluting and low income regions), reducing marine plastic pollution, making it a priority to work with high polluting countries, regions and companies, reducing plastic packaging waste, and investing in more comprehensive and definitive research into plastic pollution on land.
Waste water pollution occurs via a single source (point source), but also via dispersed sources:
Point Source – waste water can be directed to a single point where it can be collected, adequately treated, and either re-used, or discharged/released. Sewage may be directed to a sewer. Some waste water may be treated on-site.
Dispersed Source – for treatment of dispersed source waste water – ‘[it] is best reduced by enforcing proper land-use plans and development standards’ (britannica.com)
Waste water can also be treated and recycled into drinking water (blogs.ei.columbia.edu).
Common solutions to managing mine tailings are via wet storage in pits or valleys, and dry stack storage.
Tailings can remain harmful and toxic for their entire lifespan, so pits and storage stacks often have to be lined (to prevent contaminants leaching or leaking), covered/buried, sealed and managed for their lifespan.
The water is tailings can sometimes be used again, but, it has to be treated before re-use to remove harmful chemicals and contaminants.
You can read more about managing mine tailing waste in the groundtruthtrekking.org and ICMM.com resources in the sources list
More resources on potential solutions to waste pollution are:
Waste Pollution Stats
Waste pollution stats are easily available via a search engine search – you can search by the individual type of waste.
We’ve also included a plastic stats guide within our plastic pollution guide (linked in this guide).
Waste Generation & Disposal Trends, & Future Forecasts
In the US:
- Since 1960, municipal waste generation has increased significantly, although it has slowed down in recent years
- Recycling and waste combusted with energy recovery have increased, while disposal of waste to landfill has decreased
- The annual quantity of waste generated in Australia per capita declined slightly between 2006-07 and 2014-15
- [future trends are] towards more recycling and more recovery of energy from waste
- Around the world, waste generation rates are rising.
- In 2012, the world’s cities generated 1.3 billion tonnes of solid waste per year, amounting to a footprint of 1.2 kilograms per person per day. With rapid population growth and urbanization, municipal waste generation is expected to rise to 2.2 billion tonnes by 2025.
- Solid waste generation rates are rising fast, on pace to exceed 11 million tonnes per day by 2100. That growth will eventually peak and begin to decline in different regions at different times, depending in part on population growth, waste reduction efforts, and changes in consumption.
- Until that happens, the rising amount of waste means rising costs for governments and environmental pressures.
A Seldom Mentioned Indirect Form Of Waste Pollution
The transportation footprint (including the use of fossil fuels and emission of carbon and pollutants) of transporting waste.
One example is long haul trash in the US – ‘New York City, for example, spends around $1 million a day on long-haul trash’ (recoverusa.com)
Some countries also import and export different types of waste.
Problems & Challenges With Reporting On Waste Generation
Some of the issues associated with reporting on waste are:
In waste reports, different authorities and organisations count and report different types of waste – so, always look a the scope of the report to see what it includes and excludes exactly (the types of waste from which activities, whether re-used waste is counted, waste from the pre consumer stage, and so on)
The reason for this is that it’s very difficult to track and report industrial waste simply because it comes from so many sources, is so varied and spread out, and there is no one system to catch, process and report all this waste (the amount of resources it would take to count and track waste data would b substantial too)
Waste is commonly measured by size or weight, and there is a stark difference between the two. For example, organic waste is much heavier when it is wet, and plastic or glass bottles can have different weights but be the same size.
On a global scale it is difficult to report waste because countries have different definitions of waste and what falls into waste categories, as well as different ways of reporting.
Despite these inconsistencies, waste reporting is still useful for estimations and general trends and patterns in waste types
Some More Resources On Industrial Waste
It can be harder to get information on industrial waste (compared to municipal waste), but some resources that discuss industrial waste, or give some numbers/stats on it are:
- Industrial Waste Statistics (ewastedisposal.com)
- Industrial Waste In The US (statista.com)
- Definition of Domestic Waste (qld.gov.au)
24. Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2019) – “Plastic Pollution”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: ‘https://ourworldindata.org/plastic-pollution’ [Online Resource]