Human waste: the impact on health and environment  

Written by
Sophie de Jonge
May 5, 2022
min read

Creating waste


It goes without saying that waste is being generated in almost all activities in life. Whether you get too many plastic forks when getting take-away at your local Chinese restaurant, using pesticides that end up in the water, air, or soils, or combustion of fossil fuels; waste is being created. An individual person is accountable for the creation of waste on a relatively small but accumulative scale compared to large companies and organisations, which create huge amounts of waste that are more concentrated.


This large quantity of waste produced is a result of increasing consumerism, followed by heightened economic activity, consumption and pollution. Developed nations have seen a stark increase in quality of life and prosperity over the past decades, yet this does not come without consequence. These same nations tend to produce larger amounts of solid waste (food, packaging, electronics etc.) and commercial or industrial waste (oil spills, incineration residues, refinery sludges etc.). With the United States and China as frontrunners, they rank the highest in the generation of municipal solid waste. 


The generation of waste is usually a reflection of how efficient materials are being used in a country. Insights into the efficient use and re-use of materials can be made by tracking their quantity, composition and downstream effects. This can create a better understanding of waste's impact on human health and the environment.


Waste management


In the end, it would not be realistic to expect the world to not produce any waste at all as the population is ever increasing and consumerism begs for a continuous flow of new products. 


So when waste creation can not be prevented, how do we manage it properly? This can be done through recycling, reusing, storage, treatment, energy recovery and the disposal of waste. Most of the solid and hazardous waste is disposed of through landfills, surface impoundments, land treatment, land farming and underground injection.


Modern day technologies such as containment systems and monitoring programs are engineered to help landfills manage their waste. This is due to the enactment of policies by many countries after becoming aware of the environmental impact of waste. These policies aim to undo the decades of contaminated land. An example of one of these pivotal acts was the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in the United States.

The concerns around waste management have been raised through the increase of health concerns and odours. This was a result of poor disposal of waste in landfills just bordering residential areas. Consequently, societies suffered many issues such as groundwater contamination, methane gas formation, migration and diseases. This was enough to catch the attention of policy makers, who now aim to take action in order to prevent this situation from becoming even worse. 



Impacts on the environment


The impact certain types of waste have on the environment depend on their chemical composition and how they are managed. Although no empirical studies link waste to deterioration of human health, it is implicitly known that waste has a direct effect on societies and their wellbeing. The inadequate management of chemical waste can contaminate drinking water and air quality which is known to significantly impact human health and the environment. Other forms of harmful waste for the environment are hazardous waste and municipal solid waste. Hazardous waste is created by corrosive, radioactive, toxic, or flammable products. As hazardous waste has highly negative consequences for human health and the environment when in contact with land, water or air, this type of waste is strictly regulated by the government. Another type of waste is created by municipal solid waste, as landfills are the one of the largest sources for human-related methane emissions. Methane emissions are extremely damaging to the environment and cause severe impacts on climate change. Methane is released into the atmosphere when man-made waste decomposes and the severity is a result of the management facility’s location, design and practices. Practices that help in reducing those emissions are recycling and changing product use. 


  • Hazardous waste - is when waste has a negative consequence to human health and the environment. This waste is, for good reason, regulated far more strictly and categorised by the EPA or other organisations to be part of this category. These waste will be given such a title if they are corrosive, radioactive, toxic, or flammable. The impact of such waste when in contact with land, water or air can be highly damaging to the environment and also human health.¬†


  • Chemical waste - may or may not be considered hazardous waste but are toxic chemicals. When these chemicals are released into the environment, there is no indicator that it poses health or environmental risks. However, it is not sure that large quantities are not a potential future risk.¬†


  • Municipal solid waste - landfills account for approximately 11 percent of all methane emissions worldwide. Further, landfills are the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the U.S., accounting for approximately 16 percent of these emissions in 2016. This gas is extremely troubling when considering that it is one of the key gases that severely impacts climate change: as much as 25x more potent than CO, to be exact.¬†


Effective waste management


Managing waste effectively does not mean to completely stop creating waste but to limit the production to only necessary waste. Waste can be avoided by re-using materials or the choice of using more sustainable materials, alternatives that are becoming more and more popular. But there is still a long way to go to achieve an effective reduction of waste. In order to do so, the entire supply chain needs to be considered and targeted actions for steps in the supply chain need to be defined accordingly. This way many elements that are part of a business can be optimised in order to limit the overall carbon footprint of a company, through their direct and indirect operations.


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