Environmental Care

Smarter Management of Solid Waste:
Lessons from Advanced Countries

When archaeologists want to discover how primitive people lived, they delved into prehistoric “rubbish heaps”. What will they make of the tips of the 20th century? They will certainly have more to pick over. The implication of an increase in sales of consumer goods is more usage of plastics, chemicals and metals. Thus, whatever is discarded by people is extremely resistant and potentially poisonous.

Governments’ policies are beginning to reflect the fact that the environmental problems uppermost in the minds of people are concerning waste. In recent years, most countries have tightened their standards of waste disposal. Their goals have become more oriented towards the reduction in the generation of waste and towards the recycling of waste.

Legislation has typically attacked air and water pollution first and solid waste last. An obvious reason for such priorities is that waste when in air or water comes into direct contact with the plant, humans and animal kingdom and poses a larger threat to them than when it is solidified.

Although the industrial countries have had great success in cleaning their air and water, this process has often increased the amount of solid waste. For instance, disposing of the gypsum that scours sulphur dioxide from coal smoke now costs American power stations more per ton than the coal itself!

Environmentalists are right to argue for rigid control measures on the way waste is managed. Somehow, campaigns directed at encouraging sensible behavior towards solid waste, often veer off in the direction of punishing those companies whose products end up in rubbish heaps.

Ideally, polluter’s should pay the true costs of the degradation they cause. But, the real cost to society of illicit dumping in their neighboring environment is much higher and cannot be ‘paid’ by any price. The more that governments raise the costs of legitimate waste disposal, the greater will be the price discrepancy between lawful and illegitimate waste disposal.

Consequently, the incentives to dump waste in the most environmentally hazardous way increase. The problem of creating the right incentives for waste management and to monitor the impact of such measures is the central theme of what follows.


Few governments have much idea of how much waste their citizen’s produce and what it consists of. Between countries and even within them there is dispute over what should be regarded as hazardous. As a result, debates about waste management policies tend to rely more on assertion and less on factual information. For example in India, no two states would readily agree as to what is a solid waste.

Household waste does not account for more than 4% of the total waste in Europe and the Americas. Waste generated by houses and offices makes up a tenth of the total. These figures vary depending upon what is regarded as waste. Changes in the definition of waste can make a country appear grubbier. For instance, in 1990, Germany broadened the scope of hazardous waste resulting in five-fold increase in the output of harmful waste in Germany!

The organization for Economic cooperation and Development (OECD) criticized the confusion about the classification of waste in Germany because depending on local facilities to deal with a particular type of waste, the same waste could be classified as ‘waste’ to be disposed of or as ‘residual matter’ if it has any further economic use. Also, quantities are easily misjudged. In one instance, a local commercial waste collection contractor overestimated the tonnage he was disposing of at his own landfill by 30%. Perhaps to his own benefit.

National statistics show that in rich countries, municipal waste is growing more slowly than the economy as a whole. In the case of USA, an increase of 0.5% a year in waste generation suggests that such societies throw away less of their total economic output each year.

People in poor countries throw away lots of vegetable matter. As countries grow rich, the level of discarded paper rises, replacing vegetables matter as the largest waste. Estimates of what goes into landfills are extrapolated from what people buy. Paper accounts for 19% of landfills space. The volume of plastics has remained steady at 12-13% since the 1970’s. Readable copies of 25 years old newspaper and eatable corncobs have been excavated from landfills. So, if paper does not rot, why bother to substitute it for plastic? If corn dose not degrade, then what hope is there for “bio-degradable” plastics made of cornstarch?

Municipal waste has to be put somewhere. Most of it is dumped into landfills. The rest is incinerated or composed or recycled. Appropriate places for refuse are becoming scarcer by the year. Some other methods must soon be devised for waste disposal.

Is there really a waste management crisis? In the 90’s, American states appear to have shut 4 landfills for every one they have opened. If more waste is recycled or diverted to waste-to-energy plants, then landfill capacity will increase. At the present rate of waste generation in Europe, landfills use about two square meters of land per person per 100 years. If America continues to produce municipal solid waste at present rates for the next 1000 years, the whole lot will still be containable in a space 100 meters deep and 50 kms square! Given that America’s states have 7.7 million square kms of land amongst them; this would hardly suggest a real problem of scarcity.


Pressure from environmentalists has gradually closed all the easy options for getting rid of waste and the low cost options of waste disposal. Although, the ocean may seem a sensible place to dump refuse, a truly Green man might take an entirely different view. He might argue that it is wrong to poison the sea with materials whose dispersion is difficult to control. Since dumping at sea costs less, governments and companies are left with no incentives to reduce the rubbish they generate. However, under Green Pressure, Governments of rich countries have deprived themselves of these options.

Opening of a new landfill has become a political problem because people are averse to the idea of living with rubbish heaps as next-door neighbors. Thus, the costs of land waste disposal have gone up. In U.S.A., the bureaucracy involved in getting a permit to develop a landfill costs $50,000 even before the purchase of land. Some of this even spent on convincing the local community. Expanding an existing landfill is often cheaper and easier than developing a new one.

Both old and new landfills are being forced to meet higher standards in terms of avoiding any surrounding environmental damage and cleaning up any such damage that may occur later.

Although the price of land filling has risen, it is still cheaper than recycling or incinerating. Standards for incineration have also been going up to the point half the capital cost of a new plant is spent on air pollution control equipment. However, standards are rarely imposed on the where recycled materials are sorted for reprocessing. Even if incineration produces energy that can be sold, or if recycling recovers sellable materials, land filling still works out to be very economical and the cost advantages are substantial.

The costs involved in running a state-of-the-art landfill or incinerator hardly change with the scale of the operation. Thus, it is more advantageous to run a big landfill or incinerator rather than a small one.

Big operators in the waste management business have the political muscle to win development permits. They can seek out alliances with other companies willing to buy recyclables to make them into something useful. Above all, they can undertake risk and assure governments that they will still be in business when today’s disposal facilities have been closed and can pay to clean up their operations if something goes wrong.


In the past decade, the role of the private sector has expanded due to the privatization of collection and disposal services. These large private companies are better placed to finance the development of new technologies, turning this low-tech industry into something closer to chemical engineering. These large organizations will be able to bring to light the relative costs of different techniques of waste disposal, thus forcing governments to realize the economic consequences of bowing to Green demands.


Many people love recycling probably seeking a way to atone for exploitation of Mother Nature. However, the demand for recycled goods is very low making the business of recycling a non-profitable one on a small scale.

Although governments have identified recycling as one of the most effective way of sending less refuse to landfills, they have approached the business of recycling in a unsystematic manner failing to state exactly how success will be demonstrated.

Some recycling pays for itself and always has. For instance, precious metals are recaptured from industrial processes; milk bottles and soft drink bottles are retrieved. In less developed countries, even discarded plastic bags are sold.

Viable recycling depends upon a happy coincidence of materials costs and technology. The pressure to make cars lighter and so more fuel-efficient has pushed up the proportion of plastic in a typical car to about 12% to 15% of its total weight. This has resulted in a large amount of plastic scrap, which is more expensive to dump. As a result, Germany is considering legislation to compel carmakers to recycle their vehicles after their economic lives are over. Car manufacturers are designing cars that can be rapidly dismantled. They hope to recycle the plastic and the steel used in their cars. Over time, fewer materials have been recycled due to rise in the price of labour relative to the price of raw materials. For example, in developed countries, washing hospital sheets costs more than providing disposable bedding. Also, industries tend to prefer virgin raw materials because of their consistent quality and dependable supply. Waste materials, as in the case of household rubbish, may be contaminated or laborious to separate. On the other hand, companies, generally speaking, produce mainly paper and metal scrap, which makes recycling easier.

In promoting recycling as the best answer to waste disposal, environmentalists have tried to oppose market forces. The main constraint on recycling is not the difficulty in sorting out scrap. The problem is that there are not enough markets to absorb the waste that is available for recycling. For instance, we need more paper mills with the capacity to take old paper instead of new pulp.

In the case of recycled goods from household waste, the price rarely covers a fraction of the cost of collection and sorting.

Thus, it becomes necessary to create the market for recycled materials. In Germany, companies will soon have a legal obligation to take back and recycle their products at the end of their lives. So far, the legislation applies only to packaging, which to the people appear to create a disproportionate amount of litter, and has no purpose. The packaging industry disagrees, asserting the fact that packaging prevents other forms of waste such as spoilage of food or goods breaking in transit.

Incineration with energy recovery, which accounts for a large chunk of German waste disposal, is not counted as recycling. The costs of recycling are ferocious and fall on the consumers. Bigger costs fall on companies. Electronics and car companies are working on projects to make their products increasingly recyclable. In Germany, manufacturers and packagers have set up a parallel waste collection scheme called “Duales System Deutschland” (DSD) which picks up recyclable packaging from households and retailers and returns it to the manufacturers. Companies that take part in the DSD are charged a levy on each package, which must be approved by the organisation as recyclable. The package can then carry a green spot to assure retailers that can leave it’s recycling to the DSD.

Signing onto the DSD scheme puts one barrier in the way of a foreign firm wanting to enter German markets. Thus, obligatory recycling protects the markets as well as the environment. Other countries may find themselves under pressure to follow the German lead to their markets being destroyed by the backwash of German rubbish.

Germany expects to collect 200,000 tonnes of plastic a year, but it has a capacity to process only 60,000 tonnes. British officials thought of banning plastic waste imports, until it was pointed out that they would be put at a disadvantage to their competitors. The only alternative may to match subsidy with subsidy. Britain is now working on the same lines as French policy, to oblige industry to set up a recycling scheme of its own.

Finding things to make out of household rubbish, especially plastic containers will always be technically difficult. Some recycling may be promoted by regulatory changes. For instance, in the U.S., the federal government has used its road-building grant to insist that road builders must recycle asphalt pavement and include old tyres in the mixture.

The most sensible way of recycling the large chunks of municipal waste is by incineration and by recovering the energy. Incinerators produce a single product of predictable quality for which a market exists. Thus, incineration with energy is the best way to reduce the refuse that goes to landfills.


Environmentalists argue that the pricing of waste disposal does not and cannot reflect its environmental cost. Also, since households rarely have to pay to have their waste collected, they have no incentive to minimise or recycle the waste they create. In the case of industry, the rising costs of waste disposal and the growing threat of being held liable in future for cleaning up presently, legally dumped rubbish have encouraged larger companies to cut back their waste.

A number of experiments with financial incentives to reduce rubbish have been tried. The most direct incentive is to charge people by the amount of rubbish they throw out. Such pay-to-throw schemes are run in over 200 American cities. However, this scheme has several difficulties. For one, billing people who live in apartment types of housing is difficult. Also, chasing defaulters is very expensive. But, the biggest difficulty is the incentive for illicit dumping. Due to this pay-to-throw, people have stooped to low levels of morality that involve atrocious doings like chucking their rubbish into the neighboring yard. Don Fullerton of Carnegie Mellon University, USA has found out that although the weight of rubbish put out weekly by the average household fell from 25.6 lbs to 23.4 lbs, the average weight of rubbish in each bin rose by just over 42% as citizens perfected the art of throwing rubbish else where. If households started burning their rubbish in their own backyards, the social costs may be even higher than those of landfills.

Logically, a tax could be imposed on the manufacturing at a rate that reflects the costs, which would be inflicted on society if that particular good were illegally disposed of. This tax should then be returned as a subsidy on all recycling and proper waste disposal, leaving a tax only on illicit dumping.

Another option is that consumers could pay a refundable deposit on goods like soft drink bottles and cans. This scheme would be best to encourage the return of things like engine oil and car batteries whose safe disposal is especially important. However, if a deposit is set too high, it may become a potential money-earner for the light-fingered.

What about a virgin materials tax? That in theory, at least, should encourage manufacturers to use less new raw materials and recycle more by making new materials expensive to use. The obvious difficulty would be what to with import. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) rules make it hard to levy a tax on the estimated amount of virgin material constituted in an import.

Also, rewards could be extended to recycling units that exceed prescribed targets. The drawbacks in this method would be concerned with ensuring that the new, recycled products really do contain as much recycled materials as claimed.

A final option is a landfill tax. By jacking up the price of the cheapest disposal route, a landfill could make other options look more attractive. This tax would affect local taxpayers and companies that bring their rubbish straight to the dump.


As environmental standards for water quality rise, people worry more about cleaning up land that has been contaminated by past dumping. Court rulings blatantly reveal the fact that companies may be penalised in future for dumping that was legal when it occurred.

Clean up operations of contaminated land impose a burden on taxpayers and the private sector. The total cost is unknowable and will depend on extent to which the land needs to be cleaned.

Under the Super fund programme in the U.S., the EPA is responsible for cleaning up contaminated sites and recovering costs from the polluting bodies. The Superfund programme has not been a success and has cost the USA government $ 1 billion a year for over 20 years. Also, a lot of the polluters and insurers money was spent on legal cost and enormous paperwork. Claims are that the $470 million that insurers spent on paperwork in 1989 could have paid for the entire treatment of 15 sites. This existing system has attracted a lot of support from companies which treat contaminated sites, environmental lawyers and the huge number of people employed in the clean up operation of military sites.

Also, companies have spent money on cleaning up their sites are obviously reluctant to see others let off the hook. To clean up dirty land will need above all, pragmatism and moderation.

In the case of water sources, it is cheaper to purify the water than to clean the filth that pollutes it. Where land is already spoilt it may be better to seal it off from the public and leave it as a new kind of wilderness…


Higher disposal costs encourage waste producers to look for less expensive ways to get rid of it. As the treatment of hazardous waste requires especially sophisticated equipment, this kind of waste has a great tendency to cross borders. For example, in the U.S., 10% of 180 million tonnes of municipal waste generated per year is disposed of in different states.

Controlling the movements of waste is entirely a legal problem. The main difficulty lies in separating the concept of a waste from raw material. Waste and raw material cannot be distilled into separate compartments if there is a possibility of adding value to the waste and transforming it into a useful commodity. Some countries such as Germany do not regard a waste as hazardous if it is intended for recycling. So, according to judgments on waste issued by GATT, German companies can export anything deemed recyclable by German law to other countries, without giving any formal notification.

Environmentalists are aghast by these events. They argue that a lot of potentially hazardous, “recyclable” scrap crosses borders and is going to importers with no means or intentions of recycling it. Waste smuggling will become one of the growth industries of the 21st century. What are the alternatives?

One is to try and raise waste disposal standards, everywhere. Developing countries that dislike being used, as garbage dumps should enforce laws to prevent illegal dumping. Also, developed countries must realise that high standards and costs of waste disposal will only increase the incentive to dump and cheat. Only those methods should be employed wherein the costs are likely to at least match the benefits. People should be made aware of the dangers of using toxic chemicals before the dangers actually strike.

Openness on the part of companies to disclose all the toxic waste they produce has gone a long way in providing a baseline to their managers against which to judge waste reduction. This openness helps in knowing the reality. It is at this stage that one can take precautionary steps as the situation demands.

Legalised exports of waste from rich countries to poorer ones are much better than a black market. This will help to channelise the energies of the unemployed in poor countries. These poor countries can demand all the financial support needed for recycling from the richer countries. Problems involved in coping with waste will always haunt the human inhabitants of the Earth, for they are the ones who create these problems.

Hypocrisy and wishful thinking will not help to rid us of these difficulties. The best way to reduce the quantity of garbage in the domestic bin is to persuade people to buy less, buy differently and waste less. This may seem more difficult but it is ultimately more likely to lead to a cleaner Earth.

Parampal Singh
Locks Division