Sustainability has captured the popular imagination in America. Everyone wants to go green – or, at least, they want their cities, counties, and public agencies to do so.
Waste management attracts particular attention from sustainability advocates because landfills are the third largest emitters of methane gas in the U.S. Building a sustainable waste management system means dumping the “Make, Use, Dispose” model that characterizes modern consumption, and incorporating the technology needed to optimize waste management services in ways that improve citizen life and the global environment.
What is Sustainable Waste Management?
The Environmental Literacy Council defines waste as what “occurs when any organism returns substances to the environment.” By that definition, waste can be organic or inorganic, solid or liquid, electronic or gaseous. The common citizen’s threshold for waste, however, is probably more reflective of Justice Potter Stewart’s famous standard for pornography, “I know it when I see it” – or, in the case of most household and industrial waste, smell it.
As much as the average American citizen might want to improve energy efficiency and eliminate pollution, above all else, they just want their household and community waste to stay out of sight and smell. Traditional waste management companies and local governments, therefore, have long buried waste in landfills, but as the globe heats up from excess methane production, that solution is no longer practical.
Enter the concept of sustainable waste management. Lidster Corp, a UK-based sustainability enterprise, defines sustainable waste management as “using material resources efficiently to cut down on the amount of waste produced, and where waste is generated, dealing with it in a way that actively contributes to the economic, social, and environmental goals of sustainable development.” Examples of sustainable waste management include recycling projects, incorporating waste-to-energy technology, eliminating marine litter, and making sure environmentally conscious waste management solutions are the most economically viable ones for low-income countries and communities.
Sustainable waste management is critical not only to engender a flourishing natural environment that contributes to human and animal health, but also to free up valuable land from landfills, improve energy production, create jobs, and reduce the cost of transportation and logistics. In simple terms, sustainable waste management solutions help reduce pollution, produce energy, and conserve natural resources.
What Are Sustainable Waste Management Characteristics?
What does it take for experts and citizens to determine that waste management practices qualify as “sustainable”?
Fundamentally, sustainable waste management entails developing a circular economy of waste, as opposed to the make-use-dispose model. In a sustainable model, waste returns as a new product or form of energy – a cyclical model rather than a linear one.
Sustainable waste management solutions include:
The simplest solution is to produce less waste. For the homeowner, this means following the dictum to “reduce, reuse, recycle.” It might mean using landscaping clippings to mulch the garden instead of tossing them in the bin.
At the industrial level, waste reduction might mean going paperless or reducing packaging. Nationally and globally, waste reduction relies on communication technology to increase waste management efficiency.
European governments are pushing residual reduction as a means of meeting their climate control behavioral targets. Some of these countries use smart technology to reduce residual waste. Sensors monitor trash bin fill levels, letting waste management organizations target only the residual waste that needs collection.
Extracting value from organics
Residual organic matter can be processed into a biogas that can be used for heating, generating electricity, and transportation. While engineers and laboratory scientists are still working on how to scale this idea, waste management teams can explore new collection and processing techniques that return organic matter to the earth instead of packing it into a landfill.
Recovering energy from waste
Separated municipal solid waste is a renewable resource. Treating it as such requires an integrated waste management strategy for the entire community, including homeowners, industrial leaders, waste management companies, and public servants.
What Are Sustainable Waste Management Solution Options?
Linking waste management and sustainability requires a buy-in at every level, from individual households to global leadership. What can waste management practitioners and local citizens do to encourage safe, economical, and environmentally friendly practices for collecting and processing waste?
- Small businesses: Small businesses cannot risk their financial viability, no matter how strong their environmental commitment is. Their waste management strategies, therefore, must stay economical and simple. Constructing LEED-certified buildings is one effective approach. Conducting an environmental audit, reducing one-time-use plastics, and collecting e-waste are other good ideas. In some industries, a hybrid work-from-home policy may help employees save gas, reduce pollution, and extend the lives of their vehicles.
- Residences: The average American produces four pounds of trash per day. Reducing or recycling that trash take significant effort and behavioral change. It can be done, however. To make this easier, local waste management companies can offer services such as safe medical waste pickup, recycle-by-mail programs, curbside pickup, recycling services, and easy ways to safely dispose of used products from home improvement projects.
- Municipalities: Local governments can also incentivize or penalize citizens to encourage good waste management practices. The Environmental Protection Agency even offers a municipal government toolkit to help local governments improve their recycling programs. One example of a municipal approach comes from the City of Baltimore, which introduced Mr. Trash Wheel, a device that uses the river’s current to help it pick up trash in the harbor.
Sensa Networks, a purpose-driven organization dedicated to optimizing operations and lessening environmental impact with Industrial IoT smart devices and M2M (machine-to-machine) data sharing, provides an IoT (Internet of Things) solution that helps lead to more efficient waste management. The company’s remote fullness monitoring sensors can automatically schedule pick-ups and issue purchase orders to haulers only when compactors reach a specified fullness level, eliminating the cost of unnecessary collections while at the same time reducing your organization’s carbon footprint. All of this is managed through an innovative web-based remote monitoring platform that can be accessed by multiple stakeholders throughout your organization. All data is recorded and updated in real time and is accessible 24/7.
Sensa’s sensors are an important part of developing a sustainable waste management system. Learn more about Sensa’s sustainability solutions or get a quote today.