What comes to mind when you think about a thriving city or even an entire nation? There are politicians who make laws, architects to design buildings, businesses to support commerce, and countless other integral systems that go into a community. One of those systems is waste management. The collection and disposal of waste is often a part of the city that’s shoved to the background. No one wants to think about the trash they produce at home or the hazardous waste at work. But whether they think of it or not, waste management is a critical part of every town, city, and country.

What is Waste Management

At a basic level, waste management is the process in which all waste is collected and disposed of. There are several steps within this process including collection, transport, treatment, and disposal. From the inception of waste until its final disposal, systems are in place to ensure the health and safety of not only an area’s population, but also the environment.

We live in a world where almost every human activity produces waste. From large quantity generators like industrial factories to a single person unwrapping a stick of gum, everything must rely on a modern and productive waste management system. The type of waste that people are most familiar with is what’s produced through daily activities—discarded paper, food containers, packaging, and everything else you’re likely to find in a household garbage can. But besides those everyday items, cities also manage large-scale hazardous and non-hazardous waste. There are liquid chemicals used for dry cleaning, toxic gases produced in factories, solvents, oils, explosives, sludges, contaminated soils, biological substances, and a lot more. Waste management is an essential part of sustaining a strong and healthy community.

Waste Management From Past to Present

The current landscape of waste management has greatly improved from decades past. In the United States, local and federal governments have made new laws to better maintain a healthy living environment.

After World War II, the country was faced with increased waste emissions. There was a spike in health alerts related to air pollution, and major fish kills occurred regularly in rivers. These events prompted federal action, and for the first time, the national government took a role in waste management.

Since then, the federal government, local governments, and independent waste management services have worked together for continued improvement. The U.S. now recycles approximately 67 million tons of municipal waste a year. That number is up from 5.6 million tons in 1960. Government agencies enforce strict laws concerning hazardous and non-hazardous waste management and disposal, and increased publicity and education have served to further improve waste management practices.

How Technology Improves Waste Management

Technology has played an important role in modernizing waste management and making the process more efficient and cost effective. As communities grow and the world advances, so does the need for proper waste management. The process of safely collecting and disposing of waste is more complicated today than ever before. There are major challenges including pollution, contamination, and the logistics of a continually growing population. Several U.S. cities have embraced technology to tackle these challenges. The results are improved efficiency, enhanced environmental protection, and a safer community.

Here are a few of those technological changes that are improving modern waste management.

Automated Waste Collection

The first step in waste management is collection. Technology has introduced tools including advanced logistics software, in-vehicle monitors, mobile apps, and collection trucks that run on natural gas as opposed to diesel. For manufacturing plants, factories, and industrial businesses, there are also automated sensors that trigger alerts for the safety of hazardous materials. All of these improvements work together to streamline the collection process.

Modernization of Disposal Sites

The United States Public Health Service successfully banned open burning dumps in the 1950s, and each decade since has seen improvements to how waste is stored and disposed of. Today’s landfills are engineered to comply with strict regulations in regards to human and environmental safety. All waste is processed, treated, and delivered to an appropriate disposal area designed specifically for certain purposes. The modernization of landfills has improved the current landscape of waste management and also looks toward the future.

Improved Rate of Recycling and Reusability

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 35.2 percent of municipal solid waste is recycled every year. This number might sound low, but it’s a great improvement from the 6.4 percent in 1960 and even the 28.5 percent in 2000. This change is made possible thanks to more recycling plants in more cities as well as increased awareness and convenience. There are now recycling receptacles at work, in public parks, restaurants, and everywhere else. Improved technology allows for more products to be recycled including electronic and industrial waste. Society is also embracing sustainable living choices that cut down on trash. Reusable shopping bags, water bottles, and napkins are showing up in more homes, and large businesses and manufacturers are pressured into using reusable resources.

The Future of Waste Management

While individuals and society as a whole are working to oust a “throw-away” culture, technology will continue to improve the way the world deals with waste. One of the most anticipated changes is the science of turning waste into usable energy. Called bioenergy, this technology uses garbage that would normally go to a landfill to create fuel, gas, or steam that drives a turbine. Europe, Asia, and the U.S. have already seen small-scale success, and those efforts are expected to continue.

Alongside improvements in bioenergy, there will also be changes in recycling. Current recycling technology has led to great advancements, but scientists aren’t done. They want to go well beyond that 35.2 percent. Recycling solid metal, like copper, is a simple process. The U.S. has also made strides in recycling paper and certain types of plastic. But that’s not the case with more complex materials. Carbon fibre, for example, is changing manufacturing because of its strength and energy efficiency. But the problem is, recycling carbon fibre won’t be easy. The bottom line is that recycling can be expensive. It’s not always a cost-efficient option, and this limits how much material a country can realistically recycle. But as technology progresses, that will change. New sorters could identify one plastic polymer from another to make recycling quicker and more efficient.

As the planet’s population continues to grow, waste management becomes more critical. WorldBank reports that the world generates over 2.01 billion tons of municipal solid waste every year. And unless improvements are made, that number will increase 70% by 2050. The future depends on how well society can maintain and improve upon efficient waste management practices.