It’s easy to forget about dead batteries once you toss them or the stink of a baby’s diaper that you chuck in the trash. But all of the waste that’s created has a life long after it’s out of your hands.
Improper waste disposal is a leading contributor to pollution, carbon emissions and disease around the world. Learning more about the issue can help you understand how best to get rid of your own junk, as well as encourage your own cities or companies to improve their waste management systems.
Types of Hazardous Waste
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterizes hazardous waste by having at least one of the following four characteristics:
Ignitability: Anything with a flashpoint at or below 140 degrees Fahrenheit is considered ignitable hazardous waste. If improperly disposed of, these materials could start fires or endanger the lives of workers managing the waste. Some common examples include gasoline, thinners, oil-based paints and oxidizers like hydrogen peroxide.
Corrosivity: Waste at risk of being corrosive has a pH level less than two or greater than 12.5. At those levels, it’s possible for the waste to wear down metal containers, such as waste storage bins, and leak harmful materials. Examples you might find in your home include battery acid, cleaning solutions with high acidity or alkalinity and rust removers.
Reactivity: This category includes waste that could cause explosions or toxic gases when mixed with water, certain temperatures or pressure. Examples aren’t often found in homes, as they include explosives and lithium sulfur batteries.
Toxicity: Toxic waste is anything that can cause harm when it comes into contact with skin or is ingested. This category can include mixed waste material that is also reactive, corrosive or ignitable. Some of the most common toxins found in waste are asbestos, cyanide, cadmium, mercury, lead, persistent organic pollutants, arsenic and clinical waste.
These toxins can be found in products like old building materials, pesticides, batteries, medical waste, certain types of plastics, paints and ammunition. Toxins can also be found or generated in one of the growing leaders of contamination: electronic waste (or e-waste). Old computers, phones, household appliances and TVs can all emit toxins that contribute to pollution.
Public Health Disaster
The negative effects of improper waste management and disposal are myriad. When hazardous materials are disposed of in landfills or incinerators, toxins can be released into the air that cause pollution, which can lead to health and respiratory issues for humans. Plus, waste can make its way both to soil and oceans, where it can kill animals and ecosystems, as well as contaminate food supplies that many humans rely on for both sustenance and their livelihoods. The emissions from improper waste disposal also contribute to the climate crisis.
Improper sewage disposal is another giant public health concern. In areas where cities don’t properly manage waste, at least 2 billion people use drinking water sources that have been contaminated with feces. The effects of improper sewage disposal can sometimes lead to outbreaks of deadly diseases, such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, polio and typhoid.
Causes of Improper Waste Management
There are several reasons that waste gets improperly managed. One is a lack of knowledge about hazardous waste; some people don’t understand how many products can be hazardous, or don’t know how to properly dispose of them.
One of the other causes of improper garbage disposal is inaccessibility. Many people, business owners and city leaders, particularly in developing or rural areas, want desperately to properly dispose of waste, toxic garbage and sewage that contaminates their food, land and water supplies. Unfortunately, they might lack the funds, access to professionals, infrastructure or transportation resources to properly dispose of it, continuing the cycle of contamination.
Another one of the biggest causes of waste disposal gone wrong comes at the hands of business and municipal leaders. Despite learning the dangers and negative effects of improper sewage disposal, they continue to use methods like incineration, which can release harmful toxins into the air, land and oceans.
Concerned citizens can contact their local leaders or favorite businesses to make sure that they take measures to dispose of waste in responsible ways.