Current Municipal Solid Waste Management Practices

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Today, municipal solid waste (MSW) is a stream that comes primarily from residences and small commercial enterprises, and is mostly non-hazardous. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency definition followed here, MSW includes durable and non-durable goods, containers and packaging, food wastes, yard wastes and miscellaneous inorganic wastes from residential, commercial, institutional and industrial sources (USEPA 2000). The EPA definition excludes industrial waste, agricultural waste, sewage sludge and hazardous wastes including batteries and medical waste. Americans generate increasing quantities of municipal solid waste, whether measured in total tons or kilograms per capita (USEPA 2000). Containers and packaging are the largest fraction of this waste stream (33 per cent in 1995) and non-durable goods are the most rapidly growing fraction (USEPA 2000).

Disposing of municipal solid waste has become increasingly costly and centralized. In the early 1970s, municipal solid waste disposal was primarily a local matter, and most was sent to one of more than 18000 town dumps ( Waste Age 1974). Governmental oversight of environmental, health and safety issues related to landfills was minimal, and highly visible problems developed. In 1976, with important amendments in 1984, the US

Congress passed legislation that led to greatly tightened restrictions on the environmental performance of landfills. Tighter regulations were slowly phased in over several years. By 1987, the total number of landfills had decreased to 6034, with 1122 large landfills (over 175 tons per day) capturing the vast majority of MSW (USEPA 1988). By 1998, there were only 2314 landfills, yet because many are large the nation's total landfill capacity has remained roughly constant (USEPA 2000).

High landfilling costs and stricter regulations have spurred various technical and behavioral innovations in municipal solid waste management. Technical innovations include incinerators with waste-to-energy capabilities, materials recovery facilities to recover high-value items, and composting. Behavioral innovations include recycling programs and a variety of strategies aimed at source reduction, such as education and pay-as-you-throw disposal fees. Today the vast majority of MSW is still landfilled, but some is burned and an increasing fraction is recovered through recycling or composting (USEPA 2000). Much diversion by means of re-use, repair, remanufacturing and recycling takes place for economic and cultural reasons, but public policies further encourage these efforts, as other chapters of this handbook attest.

Municipal solid waste policy makers have a long history of performing industrial ecology-style analysis, examining impacts of disposable products and the role of producers during the 1950s, mass flows starting in the 1970s and life cycle assessment in the 1980s (Gandy 1994). Thus the analytical tools that industrial ecologists use have already been accepted in this policy community, making it a good case for examining political and economic issues affecting implementation.

Figure 44.1 shows the amounts and fates of the various materials comprising the US municipal solid waste stream in 1995. Several features stand out. First, only about one-quarter of the waste stream is recovered through either recycling or composting, suggesting great potential for future loop-closing activities. Paper and paperboard is the largest fraction of the waste stream by weight (39 per cent of MSW), and a relatively large fraction is recovered (40 per cent), suggesting that much effort has already been applied to this most obvious target. High-value metals enjoy similarly large recovery efforts (39 per cent in aggregate is recovered), while 30 per cent of yard trimmings are recovered (mostly by composting). Glass recovery is less successful, at 25 per cent, and plastics lag even further behind, at 5 per cent. Food wastes stand out as the material with the lowest recovery rate (4 per cent). The different recovery rates for various materials suggest that each has a unique set of technical, economic and policy drivers.

A product life cycle view of MSW is shown schematically on the left side of Table 44.1. Analysts also bemoan the problem of having responsibility for product management divided by life cycle stage (Schall and Wirke 1990; Graedel 1994) and they have endorsed solutions including packaging and product take-back (Lindqvist and Lifset 1998) and a product leasing business strategy (Stahel 1994).

The industrial ecological tools of mass flow analysis and life cycle analysis yield general insights - close more loops, do source reduction, design for the life cycle - yet they do not illuminate all current policy controversies. Headlines are instead about transboundary transport of waste, deregulation of a heavily regulated industry, and environmental justice, among other items. Many of these factors impede implementation of the industrial ecology vision, but that vision seems blind to the forces that generate the headlines. Political economy analysis clarifies the implementation issues.

Recovery by recycling or composting 56.0

Million tons, line widths are scaled approximately to flows. Includes wastes from residential, commercial and institutional sources. Excludes other wastes such as construction and demolition debris, automobile bodies, municipal sludges combustion ash and industrial process wastes

Glass 12.8 — Other metals 1.3 — Rubber and leather 6.0 ■ Other 3.6

Recovery by recycling or composting 56.0

Million tons, line widths are scaled approximately to flows. Includes wastes from residential, commercial and institutional sources. Excludes other wastes such as construction and demolition debris, automobile bodies, municipal sludges combustion ash and industrial process wastes

Disposal by landfilling or incineration 152.0

Disposal by landfilling or incineration 152.0

Source: Characterization of municipal solid waste in the USA, 1996. Update prepared for the US Environmental Protection Agency by Franklin Associates, Prairie Village, KS, June 1997.

Figure 44.1 US municipal solid waste flows, 1995 ROLE OF POLITICAL STRUCTURE

The structure of a nation's political system strongly affects the way its solid wastes are managed. Affected are the scale of operations, patterns of materials flows, financing arrangements, standards of performance and the pace of regulatory reforms. A brief review of each level of government's responsibilities follows for the US case. This discussion of the political economy of solid waste is based on Chertow (1998), USOTA (1989), Rabe (1994), Williams and Matheny (1995) and Luton (1996).

Many local governments have provided residential MSW collection and disposal as a public service funded out of general tax revenues. They also require by statute that commercial enterprises dispose of waste in an acceptable manner. Local governments choose from a spectrum of provision options that includes public provision, public contracts with private providers, granting of monopoly franchises, regulated private competition and no public involvement. There has been a fairly clear trend over recent decades towards privatization. Some municipalities emphasize recycling, while others do not. Local governments also typically set land use regulations and site facilities such as incinerators.

Table 44.1 Actor by life cycle stage









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