For a city to be sustainable, managing its waste efficiently whilst causing the least possible damage to the environment is imperative. The amount of waste produced by the global population is steadily increasing resulting in a continual problem over how and where to dispose of this waste. Targets have already been made such as European Union laws, UK national plans and strategies and at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 (Agenda 21). Currently, most domestic waste ends up in landfill sites, and the general aim has been to avoid this as much as possible. Waste management methods vary widely according to different areas due to various reasons such as type of waste material, nearby land uses and the area available. Methods could include reducing the amount of waste, reusing goods to extend their lifespan, recovering value and disposing of waste in landfill sites. Waste management has become an issue of great importance across world cities with growing populations, greater consumerism yet failing incentives. In the UK, 28 million tonnes of municipal waste are produced each year with this figure increasing at 3% per year. The disposal of this waste across the world has local, natural and global consequences. The conditions, issues and problems of urban waste management in the industrialized and developing worlds are different. Though the developed countries generate larger amounts of waste, they have developed adequate facilities and competent government institutions to manage their wastes. Developing countries are still in the transition towards better waste management but they currently have insufficient collection and improper disposal methods of waste. Urbanization can occur at such rapid rates that the local authorities have yet to decide how to cope with the waste disposal, such as in the favelas in the outskirts of South American cities, which don’t have adequate strategies. With a heightened reliance on land fill sites around the world the shortage of space will become more acute if the amount of waste continues to grow. The trouble with urban areas is that they are becoming increasingly densely populated and there is a greater demand for space. By burying biodegradable waste, such as food, it decomposes and releases methane, which, as a greenhouse gas, contributes to global warming and is even explosive. In addition, chemicals and heavy metals can pollute the soil and groundwater. For example, leachate, produced from organic waste, breaks down causing the same problem. The management of waste through incineration also proves to be problematic. Incineration of waste is used primarily as an energy source. In some cases, recyclables are removed before incineration of waste. By incinerating things that could have been reused, resources are lost. Also, Incinerators release dioxins/furans, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloride, cadmium, lead, mercury, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter and carbon oxide into the air, contributing to global climate change. Ultimately, Incineration can't make waste disappear. There is always ash left and metals. This waste is considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency. In terms of water pollution, Incineration also liquefies some materials that can end up in watersheds, as sewage treatment plants can’t process the wastewater effectively. Furthermore, in areas where employment is required, incineration removes products from recycling streams and can potentially reduce the number of jobs in an area.
Recycling, that being the extraction of value or products from waste, in urban areas is also a problem. The collection of the recyclable materials is time consuming, complicated and costly. It is also difficult to motivate entire populations to abide by the precise rules. Large amounts of energy are required to reproduce or extract the useful materials. In cities, the collection of recyclable goods is also complex and the citizens need to be educated on the matter. The collected material also has to be transported to a factory that is most probably outside of the urban area therefore there is environmental damage as the recycling cannot be done locally. Waste reduction is another type of waste management and it is at the top of the waste management hierarchy but it doesn’t prove to be as efficient as the other methods. It is very difficult to control the amount of waste produced by individuals especially in urban areas where consumerism is far greater than in rural areas.
The increase of waste production in the UK is becoming an increasingly worrying issue and for this reason it has undertaken initiatives to stop this. The government response to the problem of waste began in 2000 with the publication of the first ever waste strategy. It was driven by an EU Landfill Directive. The government had translated this directive into one initial target – to recycle 40% of household waste by 2010. The UK hoped to meet this target by adopting the concept of the waste hierarchy, which is summarized by the phrase ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’. The key idea is that waste is seen as a resource. Any waste that is unsuitable for these purposes may be incinerated to generate energy, or put into landfill. Under EU rules, after 2010 local authorities will be fined £150 for every tonne of waste they put into landfill over the prescribed limit. However, central government does encourage local councils to be proactive in diverting waste away from landfill by operating a landfill tax, which goes up annually. This puts pressure on local councils to promote the ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ message as the more waste that goes to landfill the greater local taxes become. Local authorities adopted a number of strategies to reduce the waste and encourage recycling such as making businesses more responsible for environmental impacts by charging them more for waste they send to landfill. This landfill tax was expected to rise every year until at least 2011. Also, laws to tackle the illegal dumping of waste were introduced in 2007. There were new measures introduced in Northern Ireland to cut down on unauthorized operators, including organized criminal gangs who can generate profits of around £100 per tonne of illegal waste. If laws like these and many more are continually reinforced and controlled then the targets of reducing the waste in the UK could be met in the future. In other parts of the world, especially LEDC urban areas, the issue of waste disposal impacts the society and environment to a greater extent. In order to reduce the waste produced LEDC cities can follow the example of one of Belo Horizonte’s strategies in Brazil. A program was introduced and even praised for having improved recycling and the quality of life of the homeless. In 1993 the municipal administration joined forces with the homeless to formalize the work that they were already doing in an attempt to recycle more of the waste produced by Belo Horizonte. Before this, the homeless were collecting recyclable goods by cart and sorting it on the streets. An organized selective handling and treatment system was introduced. Drop off points around the city encourage public participation in the scheme which has expanded rapidly - collection of recyclable material growing from 15 to 500 tonnes per month. There are now three permanent sorting warehouses. The key to success with waste disposal is the selection of the appropriate strategies for the area. The right funds, planning and motivation are required all to different extents. For targets to be met, an incentive is required. The national government of a country may not be enough, but in the case of the UK, it is the EU, which further encourages better waste management.