Municipal Solid Waste: What is It and Why is It a Problem?

Hint: There’s too much of it, it’s toxic, and it hurts our health and environment

Kirstie Pecci

Last month, I shared with you the perils of landfills and ash incinerators and why we need to rethink the way we dispose of our trash. But just what goes into a landfill or incinerator, anyway?

Think for a moment about the trash you produce every day, either directly or indirectly. First, there’s what you throw out at your home or your job; then there’s what the restaurants, stores, doctors’ offices, and other businesses you frequent throw out after you leave.

Next, add the waste from the farms that produce your food; the manufacturers that make the products you use; the local, state and federal government facilities that teach your kids, plow your roads, police your streets, process your taxes, or deliver your mail.

Finally, there is construction and demolition waste – asphalt, bricks, and concrete, as well as pressure-treated wood, asbestos, drywall, and insulation.

All of this together is municipal solid waste, or “MSW,” and revolutionizing how we handle it is what CLF’s Zero Waste Project is all about. And, while this blog series will focus on issues in Massachusetts, this problem exists across New England.

Our Trash Is a Problem and Here’s Why

Most people are unaware that we have a serious – but preventable – solid waste problem here in New England and across the country. In 2015 in Massachusetts alone, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, all of us living and working in the Commonwealth produced nearly 5.5 million tons of municipal solid waste. We burned about 3.25 million tons of that waste in incinerators and buried 880,000 tons in landfills across the Commonwealth. Massachusetts exported the remaining 1.38 million tons to other states to burn and bury.

(The Commonwealth also imported and buried an additional 500,000 tons of waste in our landfills, but the 5.5 million figure above does not include this.)

To understand the risks to our health and environment of burying and burning 5.5 million tons of trash every year, consider the following:

  • Our waste is toxic. Municipal solid waste can contain every and any dangerous substance on the market in the United States. These substances include volatile organic compounds (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, radioactive materials, and pharmaceuticals. Tens of thousands of dangerous substances are spread throughout millions of tons of waste like paper, cardboard, food and yard waste, plastics, containers, and textiles. And it all gets burned or buried in landfills near you.
  • Every landfill will leak eventually. Some landfills use a plastic liner system under its buried waste. But plastic deteriorates over time, allowing leachate (a liquid made of the rain and melted snow that’s fallen on the landfill and that gets contaminated by the buried waste with all the potential toxins noted above) to pass through it into the soil and groundwater. Likewise, clay or compacted soil liners become increasingly porous over time. Depending on how carefully liners are constructed and maintained, defects, holes, patches, and cracks may cause landfills to leak almost immediately. Of the 19 ash and municipal solid waste landfills in Massachusetts alone, some have been releasing contaminants into the environment for decades – and there’s no way to repair liners once they leak.
  • Burning produces toxic air pollution. Incinerators produce both ash that is deposited in landfills and ultra-fine particulate matter that enters the air after escaping pollution control technology. Incinerators emit toxins such as VOCs, heavy metals, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury, carbon dioxide, and furans into the air. Any contaminants captured by the air pollution control measures end up in the incinerator ash. That ash is then buried in landfills, which brings us back to the leaky liner problem above.
  • All those contaminants are linked to cancer and more. Dioxins, for example, are a class of carcinogen for which there is no safe exposure level. Heavy metals are dangerous at very low levels and create myriad health problems such as heart and lung disease, developmental delays, respiratory problems, as well as brain, kidney, liver, and nervous system damage.
  • Recycling programs would help, but access is limited. About 40% of Massachusetts residents do not have access to municipal recycling programs, and the recycling regulations that we do have are not enforced. As a result, about 2 million tons of waste that can and should be recycled by law ends up burned or buried.

If you’re learning about this for the first time, you may be surprised and disgusted by how wasteful and dangerous our solid waste system is. I certainly was. But I also know that we can do better. Before we dig into the solutions to our trash problem, we’ll look at the various ways that cities and towns handle our waste – and why solving this issue is more complicated than it seems.

In the meantime, you can take action by telling the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that it’s not okay for the Saugus Landfill to expand even more. Read why here, and then, please, take action to protect our communities from this dangerous landfill.

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