Health Effects of Waste Mismanagement

Written by
Sawyer Mitchell
July 13, 2023

In today’s fast-paced society, it is not uncommon for people to throw something away and never think about it again. When you throw away your coffee cup on your way to work, why would you need to worry about it being managed properly? If it was disposed of in a trash can, it is no longer your responsibility, right?

As of this year, 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste is produced annually by the global community. This number is only supposed to grow as countries’ populations continue to increase. 33% of this waste has been found to be mismanaged, causing environmental implications. Mismanaged waste can be defined as any waste that is inadequately disposed of (litter) that can find its way into water systems and into natural environments, whether it be hazardous, organic, or dry materials. That coffee cup you threw away could easily fall out of a garbage truck and be blown into a nearby creek, where it will not biodegrade for years to come. Even if your coffee cup does make it to a landfill, there is still a large possibility it can contribute negatively to the environment.

Open Landfills: Although landfills make up the majority of waste disposal systems, a large chunk of that percentage consists of open and unsanitary landfills. These pose an enormous threat to the environment as leachate from open dumpsites is directly linked to causing soil, groundwater, and even air pollution which then leads to their degradation and contamination. Developing countries do not usually have the necessary resources and land to manage the waste production from their growing populations. Consequently, open and unsanitary landfills are very common in these communities and are difficult to find realistic solutions for. Not only does this become detrimental to the surrounding environment, but also to the health of humans and wildlife. For this reason, it is crucial to address this problem and seek sustainable alternatives to mitigate the negative impacts open and unsanitary landfills have on communities.

Health Effects of Leachate: Most people view waste as an all-encompassing word for anything that is no longer wanted or needed, assuming it can be disposed of whenever it becomes useless and without consequences. However, most people do not realize that their waste can have a lasting impact that can “come back to haunt them.”

Over time, when open landfills are exposed to moisture, such as rain or snow, waste begins to degrade. This degradation process can cause leachate and gasses to form, which are oftentimes hazardous. Without proper management or collection systems in place, landfill leachate can percolate through the soil into groundwater or flow into surface water bodies. This is especially prevalent in developing countries due to the lack of financial resources needed to construct effective collection and management systems. In addition, with many countries lacking adequate waste sorting, most landfills consist of a wide range of waste types, resulting in leachate containing many different pollutants as well as additive toxicity caused by the mixing of these contaminants.

Moreover, leachate commonly contains both organic and inorganic pollutants, heavy metals, and even ammonia, which have all been known to be highly toxic–or even life-threatening–to humans and wildlife. Due to the nature of waste, many landfills produce leachate that is also riddled with harmful pathogens that can spread disease among populations. All of these pollutants can quickly render a water source undrinkable and uninhabitable for aquatic life. Additionally, certain metals, such as selenium and mercury, can make fish inedible. If humans consume leachate-contaminated water, plants, or animals, they can face serious health effects. All four of the previously mentioned chemical contaminants have been proven to cause either acute or chronic organ failure that can be fatal or create irreversible damage. Although inorganic, organic, and metal pollutants are known carcinogens, heavy metals are more worrisome because they have been linked to developmental disabilities in children and neurological alterations. Even though these contaminants are known to be dangerous to humans, sometimes they are not easily detectable. For example, heavy metal contamination does not always cause a visual or odor change in water, reinforcing the importance of proper leachate management systems that capture and test for such toxins. Tearfund’s 2019 report estimated that between 400,000 and 1 million people will die in developing countries each year due to the health repercussions caused by mismanagement of waste. Understanding how easy it is for waste to threaten the health of the environment and human beings, it is crucial to ensure your community utilizes proper waste management practices. Although government entities or environmental agencies usually control landfills or other disposal systems, citizens play a huge role in waste management.

The Trash Crisis: Even with years of legislation, policies, and campaigns, trash still finds its way onto city streets, whether it be by blatant littering or poor waste collection systems. Although it is not in quantities as large as landfills, waste on streets, beaches, or in parks can still have a negative impact on environmental and human health. Garbage overflow in streets can result in the influx of pests and the spread of infectious diseases. This can be directly linked to the improper disposal of organic domestic wastes, such as foods, as they can encourage the growth of microbial pathogens once rotten. Not only can this type of waste cause water and air pollution, but it can also block stormwater runoff drains which result in stagnant water that becomes “breeding grounds of disease.” Poor waste collection systems causing health concerns is especially important in light of recent strikes by sanitation workers in Paris. These strikes have resulted in garbage pile-ups and overflows all over the city, leaving over 7,000 tonnes of trash along its sidewalks. As expected, this also increased the rat population, causing concern over pathogen outbreaks. Similar instances have occurred over many years, and it is easy to assume that they continue in the future. It is crucial to take action to remediate the ongoing problem of littering and garbage overflows in cities or beaches.

This crisis, however, is even more prevalent in developing countries as they usually do not have the necessary financial resources to implement proper waste management systems. In fact, over 2 billion people across the globe do not get their household garbage collected. This leads to the practice of open dumping in non-regulated sites and waste piling up in residential areas, causing outbreaks of disease primarily through water contamination. The diseases spread by drinking water with microbial contamination (pathogens) kill an estimated 485,000 people every year, with the majority being in developing countries due to their poor sanitation systems. We, as a global community, need to work towards a cleaner planet to reduce these numbers and improve the health of our environment.

How you can help: It may seem unfathomable that you could solve the problem of waste mismanagement worldwide, but all it takes is small changes in your household to kickstart the movement towards a cleaner and healthier world. One major way is through garbage sorting. This can be implemented in your household, in your local community, and can even become a universal practice. The act of separating organics (foods), different types of plastics, metals, and paper can result in more sustainable communities as recycling becomes more efficient and reduces the amount of waste being dumped in landfills. Further, isolating organic waste could encourage households or communities to start composting, which can be reused as a clean fertilizer to grow more organic foods. Because organic waste is a big source of water and soil contamination, composting can help prevent its negative impacts on human and environmental health. Lastly, garbage sorting is a great way for communities lacking proper waste collection systems to manage their trash. Developing countries occupy over 85% of the world’s population, meaning a large chunk of our global society has been faced with health implications due to mismanaged waste. If the citizens of these countries came together to advocate for and implement garbage sorting on local levels, they would be taking a massive step toward making their communities cleaner and healthier. One step at a time, waste can become easier to manage and will have a reduced impact on the environment.

How can we, as a global community, work towards a cleaner planet and improve the health of our environment?
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