The increasing amount of household waste, following population growth, urbanisation and increased affluence, has become a significant global environmental issue. With the average European generating around 480 kg of waste each year, it is crucial that that we practice good household waste management in order to reduce our environmental footprint. While good waste management is important, the key to dealing with the escalating waste problem lies in changing our buying habits and our attitudes towards consumption. To do so, we need to understand more about our waste, about what happens to it and how we can reduce it.
What is Household Waste?
Household waste, also known as residential waste or domestic waste or more commonly referred to as garbage or trash, is waste that is generated by households. This type of waste consists of everyday items and consists mainly of plastics, paper, glass, metals, organics and others (textiles, leather, rubber, appliances, e-waste etc.). Household waste can be divided into four categories: recyclable, organic, hazardous and general waste.
Recyclable waste is material and objects that can be processed into new products, such as paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass.
Organic waste, or green waste is organic and biodegradable material that originates from living organisms such as food, paper towels, tea bags and garden waste.
Hazardous waste is waste that are considered toxic, explosive, corrosive or flammable that may be harmful to the environment and to the health of people and animals, such as batteries, paint, electronics, aerosols, herbicides, solvents, pesticides and cleaning products.
General waste, or residual waste is material or objects that are non-biodegradable and that cannot be recycled, such as ceramics, leather, rubber, textiles, candle wax and mixed material wrappings.
What Happens to Household Waste?
Waste management systems differ from different countries and communities but in most western countries the waste is separated into the categories above, each of which have different processes. For these processes to be efficient, it is essential that we dispose of our waste correctly as advised by our local communities.
Recyclable waste is predominantly collected from the household and transported to nearby recycling centres. At the recycling centres the recyclables are sorted by type before being sent to domestic or international manufacturers who process the material into new products. By recycling our waste rather than disposing of it, we are giving our waste a new purpose while keeping it out of landfills, avoiding threatening biodiversity and generating greenhouse gasses. Recycled materials additionally minimise the energy consumption associated with developing new products compared to non-recycled manufacturing, which lower the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere.
Organic waste is often buried in landfills to decompose and eventually disappear. While this may sound like a reasonable, environmentally friendly solution, the decomposed biodegradables release one of the most potent greenhouse gasses – methane. When released into the atmosphere, methane is about 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide. Rather than simply discarding the organic waste, other communities take advantage of their organic waste by capturing and converting the landfill gasses into renewable energy instead of letting them escape into the air. Another popular application of organic waste is to transform the digester solids into organically beneficial products such as organic fertilizers, compost and animal feed.
Much household hazardous waste is unfortunately disposed of with general waste and ends up in landfills, causing toxic contamination of groundwater, surface water, air, and soil. Hazardous waste should therefore not be mixed with non-hazardous waste and should be disposed of separately. When separated and disposed of correctly through disposal facilities, the hazardous waste is sorted before being prepared for either disposal or recycling. If not recycled, the waste normally undergoes incineration, which is the process of burning waste at extremely high temperatures, or is stabilised and solidified before ending up in landfills. As these methods eliminate the toxins found in hazardous waste, they are considered safe to the environment. However, if the collection, treatment, and disposal of the waste material is improperly handled, these methods can cause substantial harm to the health of humans and animals and to the safety of the environment.
The waste disposed of in your general waste bin usually ends up in the landfill or is burned in incinerators. The proportion of waste that ends up in landfills and that ends up incinerators is country dependent, as well as the environmental impact. While incineration is widespread in a number of European countries, particularly in northern Europe, in many countries landfill is the primary disposal method. While some landfills are significantly worse than others, many impose threats to the health of water, soil, air and biodiversity.
How to Reduce Household Waste?
By taking some easy steps at home, we can reduce the amount of waste we produce as well as impact what happens to it. The zero-waste hierarchy sets out priorities for how we can better manage our waste in favour of the environment.
The highest priority and the preferred action is to reduce the amount of items and materials consumed. This includes selecting items with little or environmental friendly packaging, avoiding disposable products or single-use materials, buying products that are recycled, recyclable, repairable, refillable, re-usable or biodegradable
The second priority is to reuse items. Use items more than once and find new use for items instead of disposing of them.
The third priority is to recycle products. Be thorough and consistent with separating your items into the different bins provided in your community. Look for ways to recycle items that do not qualify for your recycling bins, such as clothes and e-waste.
The least desired action is to dispose of items. Ensure that you correctly separate and dispose of your items in the most environmentally responsible manner possible.