Basic Characterization Methods

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Environmental engineers use one of two fundamental methods to characterize solid waste. One method is to collect and analyze data on the manufacture and sale of products that become solid waste after use. The method is called material flows methodology. The second method is a direct field study of the waste itself. Combining these two fundamental methods creates hybrid methodologies (for example, see Gay, Beam, and Mar [1993]).

The direct field study of waste is superior in concept, but statistically meaningful field studies are expensive. For example, a budget of $100,000 is typically required for a detailed estimate of the composition of MSW arriving at a single disposal facility, accurate to within 10% at 90% confidence. A skilled and experienced team can often provide additional information at little additional cost, including an estimated composition for bulky waste based on visual observation.

The principal advantage of the material flows methodology is that it draws on existing data that are updated regularly by business organizations and governments. This method has several positive effects. First, the entire waste stream is measured instead of samples of the waste, as in field studies. Therefore, the results of properly conducted material flows studies tend to be more consistent than the results of field studies. Second, updates of material flows studies are relatively inexpensive once the analytical structure is established. Third, material flows studies are suited to tracking economic trends that influence the solid waste stream.

The principal disadvantages of material flows methodology follow.

Obtaining complete production data for every item discarded as solid waste is difficult. Although data on food sales are available, food sales bear little relation to the generation of food waste. Not only is most food not discarded, but significant quantities of water are added to or removed from many food items between purchase and discard. These factors vary from one area to another based on local food preferences and eating patterns. Material flows methodology cannot measure the generation of yard waste. Material flows methodology does not account for the addition of nonmanufactured materials to solid waste prior to discard, including water, soil, dust, pet droppings, and the contents of used disposable diapers. Some of the material categories used in material flows studies do not match the categories of materials targeted for recycling. For example, advertising inserts in newspapers are typically recycled with the newsprint, but in material flows studies the inserts are part of a separate commercial printing category.

In performing material flows studies for the U.S. EPA, Franklin Associates bases its estimates of food waste, yard waste, and miscellaneous inorganic wastes on field studies in which samples of waste were sorted. Franklin Associates (1992) also adjusts its data for the production of disposable diapers to account for the materials added during use.

In general, the more local and the more detailed a waste characterization study is to be, the greater are the advantages of a direct field study of the waste.

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