Are Waste Disposal Methods Affected By Socioeconomic Factors

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					How Is Waste Management Affected By Socioeconomic Factors?

                 Submitted to Dr. H.A. Babaie
                 Geology 2001, Summer 2002

                Submitted by M. Leonard Brown

       One of the most pressing environmental issues facing the world today is the issue

of waste management and disposal. This problem crosses all international borders and

touches the lives of all of the world‟s peoples.        Waste management encompasses

everything from collection and handling to disposal by incineration, landfill and other

methods, and recycling. Also included are the serious associated implications for the

health of people and the environment.        As waste producing activities proceed and

intensify, the world community will be faced with hard choices on how to best manage

and dispose of wastes. These decisions should be based on hard science and sound

management practices. However, there are geopolitical dimensions to be found in the

decision-making process of waste management and disposal. The purpose of this study

has been to determine how geopolitical factors affect waste management on global and

local scales. Specifically, this investigation has been guided by looking at how social and

economic factors affect global and national waste management practices.

       By looking at the various aspects of waste management, this investigation has

determined that decision-making is greatly affected by socioeconomic factors. Waste

disposal practices are shown to be directly associated with the extent to which a nation or

region is industrialized, or developed. This study presents evidence, both statistical and

anecdotal, that waste disposal, incineration, landfill site selection, and many of the other

areas of waste management are indeed associated with ethnic, racial, regional and

national considerations.

       This study concludes that international waste management issues are also

international political and social issues. Issues of race, class, and relevant position among

the world‟s nations undermine the scientific basis that should inform and guide waste

management and disposal. It can be stated without reservation, that as long as waste

management decisions are impinged upon by factors other than science, those decisions

are unwise and ultimately harmful to the world ecology. Further, as regions and nations

persist in making and executing waste disposal policy on the basis of relative positions of

power, the incentive to allow science to reveal new, globally beneficial methods will be



       Waste management and disposal, and landfill site selection, have become issues

in the 21st century that are clearly in the arena of discrimination based on national origin,

social class, and race.       Neighborhoods seek less politically connected, poorer

neighborhoods in which to dump their trash. Cities seek out less affluent areas to which

to transport their refuse. States export tons of garbage daily to other states or nations.

Nations transport more tons of waste to less powerful nations. This is the problem of

waste management and disposal that confronts the world today. Industrialized nations

ship garbage and hazardous wastes to undeveloped nations by routing practice. The

undeveloped nations, already at a technological disadvantage, become sites of

environmental disaster as they are overwhelmed with the dangers of poisoned


       This study has investigated waste management and landfill site selection on a

global and national scale. This type of discussion requires that generalizations be made

from time to time. To that end, throughout this investigation, the modern world system

will be referred to using the three-tiered relationship elucidated by Paul L. Knox and

Sally A. Marston (2001). It designates regions that dominate trade, control the most

advanced technologies, and have high levels of productivity within diversified economies

as “core” regions. They are comprised, currently, of North America, Western Europe,

and Japan. “Peripheral” regions are those with undeveloped or narrowly specialized

economies with low levels of productivity. Currently, they are made up of most of Africa

and Southeast Asia, the western Pacific island nations, parts of South America and

Central America, and many of the nations of south central and southwest Asia. Regions

that are able to exploit peripheral regions but are themselves exploited and dominated by

core regions are known as “semiperipheral” regions. The nations of Australia, South

America, Mexico; east, central and northern Asia, as well as most of South America fall

under that designation (Knox, 2001, pp. 55-57). These designations are by no means

static, and can change with the changing fortunes of nations.

       Using the above designations, a trend will be revealed that shows the exploitation

of periphery regions by core regions in the area of global waste management.

Interestingly, it will also be shown that there is intraregional exploitation, that is, that

nations practice exploitation against their own people based on factors of socioeconomic

class, race, and regional housing and settlement patterns. The discussion will proceed

initially with a brief overview of the technical and demographic aspects of waste disposal

issues in the modern world. The socioeconomic issues will then be considered in greater

detail from global, regional and national perspectives.

Analyses and Discussion.

        What is waste disposal? What are some environmental impacts?

        Waste management, for purpose of this discussion, concerns the collection and

disposal of municipal solid waste (MSW). This discussion will also consider the issue of

landfill site selection and management. To a lesser degree, waste management in this

discussion will include toxic byproducts of industry and manufacturing, and hazardous

and nuclear waste disposal.

        A report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (E.P.A.) reveals that

Americans generated 231.9 million tons of MSW in 2000, a one-year increase of about

900,000 tons over 1999 totals. Waste generation increased throughout the 1990s as

economic growth continued to be strong, with paperboard generation leading the way.

Through 2000, the per person daily waste generation was measured at 4.51 pounds (W1).

Though these totals showed a slight decline in 2000 from 1999, waste generation and

disposal remains a growing problem, as large municipalities close some waste disposal

facilities --- as in the case of New York City closing the Fresh Kills landfill ---and are

forced to search for alternate sites.

        One of the principal methods of disposing of collected MSW is through the use of

landfills.   Landfill technology represents one of the world‟s most important yet

controversial methods of waste disposal. Landfills, as a method of waste disposal, have a

lengthy and varied history. They have been used around the world by a variety of

cultures to varying degrees for centuries. The technology has greatly evolved over the

years; however, there is great debate over the issue of landfill contamination of soil and

groundwater. This serious problem has spurred the scientific and technological evolution

of landfill site selection and management.

        Because landfill leachate, or garbage juice, presents such a dire environmental

hazard, site selection and management are crucial. The following criteria posed as

questions are suggested by G. Fred Lee, PhD., and associates (1993) in the site selection

and management of lined, or “dry tomb” landfills:

        1) Is there a hydraulic connection between the landfill or aquifer potentially

             affected by the landfill and groundwater beneath adjacent properties that

             could, at any time in the future, be used for domestic water supply purposes?

        2) Will the landfill design (cap, liner, leachate collection-removal system, etc.)

             prevent leachate from being formed in the landfill, and prevent leachate‟s

             leaving the landfill through the liner system for as long as the wastes in the

             landfill represent a threat to groundwater quality?

        3) How much leachate will be generated annually in the landfill over the period

             during which the wastes represent a threat to groundwater quality.

        4) How will dessication-cracks and differential-settling cracks in the cap of the

             landfill be detected and remediated?

5) What will be the costs, and how and by whom will the costs be paid, for cap

   maintenance for as long as the wastes represent a threat to groundwater


6) What will be the rate of leachate transport (gallons/acre/year) through the

   landfill liner and out of the leachate collection-removal system at the time of

   construction? How will the leakage rates change over the time that the wastes

   in the landfill represent a threat to potential impact of such leakage or

   groundwater quality in the vicinity of the landfill?

7) For landfills incorporating composite liners, what will be the potential impact

   of dessication-cracking of the soil-clay layer of the composite on the rate of

   leach ate transport? What is the anticipated area of the liner in which the

   intimate contact between the Flexible Membrane Liners (FML) and the soil-

   clay layer will not be achieved? What will be the impact on the rate of leach

   ate transport of not achieving intimate contact between the FML and the soil-

   clay layer over that area?

8) How will the problem of desiccation-cracking of the compacted soil layer of

   the composite liner be identified, and remediated? How will the dessication-

   cracking that occurs affect leachate transport through the liner?

9) What is the expected composition of the leachate? What is the potential for

   each of the components to pollute groundwater in the vicinity of the landfill,

   rendering it unusable or impaired for use as a domestic water supply?

       10) What is the potential for trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chlorinated

           solvents in the proposed landfill t pollute groundwater with known human


       11) What is the potential impact of any seismic activity that could occur in the

           vicinity of the landfill on the landfill structures?

       12) What is the ability of the groundwater monitoring system proposed to detect

           leakage from the landfill liner before widespread groundwater contamination


       13) Can municipal solid waste leachate-contaminated aquifers be cleaned up to

           the point at which the groundwater and the aquifer can be used again for

           domestic water supply purposes?

       14) Did the consulting firm for landfill design and Environmental Impact

           Statement (Report) firm make a possible worst-case scenario evaluation fo0r

           the pollution of groundwater by the proposed landfill? Who will pay for clean

           up costs?

       15) What are the officials in the local political jurisdiction doing toward

           investigating and remediating current groundwater pollution from existing

           landfills, and toward preventing future groundwater pollution by landfills?

       16) How will the moisture content of the waste in the closed landfill affect the rate

           of fermentation (gas production) and leaching of contaminants from the

           wastes (Lee, 1993)?

       The foregoing represents just some of the critical questions that should be

addressed, and criteria to be met in landfill site selection. Site selection and installation

must be held to strict standards because, as the EPA has pointed out, even the best liner

and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration, and recent

improvements in MSW landfill containment technologies suggest that releases may be

delayed by many decades at some landfills (Lee, 1995). Contamination by landfill

represents one of the most serious threats to the environment, and a direct threat to the

health of citizens.

        Waste    incineration   and   airborne   waste   pollutants   from    industry and

manufacturing also pose environmental and health hazards. They should be subject to

just as stringent controls. Municipal waste incinerators release dangerous levels of heavy

metals and toxic byproducts of combustion such as the carcinogens dioxin and furans.

The ash resulting from trash incineration has been found to contain elevated levels of the

heavy metals lead, cadmium, and copper (W2). When dumped into landfills, these toxins

become components of the leachate. When dumped into unlined pits, they can migrate

directly into the groundwater through filtration and recharge.

        Industrial waste pollutants pose an immediate danger to nearby residents. The

release of tons of air pollutants into the atmosphere in the form of acid gases, particulate

matter, sulfur dioxides, lead, dioxin and other carcinogens, as well as soot, exposes

people living in the vicinity to immediate and long-range health hazards. Typically,

when confronted with a choice of increased job opportunities and the attendant dangers

associated with these type of industrial activities, or pollution-free living conditions, the

residents are faced with a difficult decision, and have often opted for the employment

offered by polluters. Often, the polluting facility offers the only means of employment in

the area. AS will be demonstrated, all of the above facilities are frequently to be found

 located in areas that are peculiar for the nature their racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic


Analyses and Discussion.

        Evidence of bias in waste disposal activity.

        Instances of trash and garbage dumping and waste disposal originating in core

regions and contaminating periphery regions are abundant. In January 2000, it was found

that Japan was using official lending agencies that provide development aid to promote the

export of Japanese incinerators to Thailand.     Japan is seeking new markets for its

incinerators because the market at home has diminished due to public concern over

pollution levels. A current project proposes to burn Bangkok‟s wastes in four Japanese

funded incinerators, each with a daily capacity of 1300 tons, at a cost of 20,000 million

Thai bath ($540 million U.S.). The amount would be given as a soft loan to the Thai

government for the purchase of the incinerators. Ayako Sekine, Greenpeace Japan toxic

campaigner said, “It is ironic that after polluting Japan, Japanese incinerator companies

supported by the Japanese government, are taking their toxic trade to poorer Asian nations

like Thailand. Japan should be assisting Thailand to move towards progressive waste

reduction, segregation and recycling programs,” (W2).        Programs such as the one

described are often a pretext for exporting waste from a core region, such as Japan, to a

periphery nation.

         It was recently announced that Buenos Aires has become the first city in South

America to ban the incineration of medical wastes (W3). The ban follows months of

campaigning and public demonstrations. Currently, most of the medical waste in Buenos

Aires is incinerated on the outskirts of the city, in vicinity of vast city slums, releasing a

myriad of carcinogens into the environment. Under the new law medical waste from the

city must be disposed of by alternative non-polluting technologies (W3). The waste

incineration practices of Buenos Aires are typical of many South American cities, and may

be sites for imported wastes from other locales.

         In another example of a core nation exporting its waste problem to the periphery,

the highest court in the Netherlands ruled that a ship containing asbestos, heavy metals and

other toxic material should be classified as toxic waste (W4). The vessel will not be

allowed to proceed to Asia to be scrapped, preventing it from causing harm to both people

and the environment at an Indian shipbreaking yard. The decision is important because it

is the first ever legal recognition that a ship containing asbestos must be treated as

hazardous waste. It sets a precedent that in the future ships must be cleaned of toxic

wastes before being sent to ship breaking yards, many of which are located in nations of

the periphery. Every year, hundreds of such vessels are sent to India for scrapping. This

work, which is done under miserable conditions and without proper safety measures and

equipment, will increase in the next few years because all single-hull oil tankers must stop

trading before 2015 (W4).

         Another incident involving ship scrapping reveals that the problem is not confined

to India. Environmental activists intercepted a European cargo vessel laden with toxic

waste while it illegally attempted to enter a Turkish shipbreaking yard (W5). The vessel,

the Sea Beirut, was towed from France to be scrapped in Aliaga, one of Turkey‟s many

shipbreaking yards, with asbestos still on board. French authorities sold the ship to a

German company. It was sold for scrap with asbestos on board, clearly a violation of

numerous international and French regulations.       A Greenpeace campaigner says that

France and other European countries are routinely and illegally dumping hazardous wastes

in Turkey and other Asian nations. The practice will continue unless the European Union

ensures its shipping industries clean their vessels of hazardous waste materials before they

are exported (W5).

         Indeed, the internationally publicized story and photo of the floating garbage

barge containing 3186 tons of Long Island, NY, garbage symbolizes a long-ignored crisis

(Mitchell, 1998). Cargo ships and barges laden with garbage and other refuse from some

of the largest U.S. cities along the Eastern Seaboard are enroute to Caribbean islands and

South American ports, as well as a number of African cities. It has been widely speculated

that serving as the garbage dump for core nations is fast becoming the number one industry

on the African continent.

         The same tendencies observed in waste management and disposal on a global

scale are evident in; the United States. A study published by the United Church of Christ

Commission for Racial Justice found that race, even more than poverty , was the shared

characteristic of communities exposed to toxic wastes (Suro,1998). Flying in the face of

agreed upon scientific criteria for selection, spokespersons for companies such as Waste

Management, Inc., claim that there are often compelling reasons for the choice of a waste

disposal or treatment site that have nothing to do with the make-up of the population. For

example, one spokesperson argued that the site of a landfill near the predominantly poor,

black town of Emelle, AL, was chosen largely because an EPA study found that it had

ideal geology. Lawyers working on behalf of grass roots environmental groups agree that

such arguments can make it virtually impossible to prove intentional discrimination, which

is necessary to win most civil rights cases (Suro, 1998).

         However, a growing body of evidence that suggests that minorities in America

suffer the most from pollution and benefit the least from cleanup programs is transforming

environmental politics.     The movement received an important measure of official

recognition when a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found evidence

that racial and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionate exposure to dust, soot, carbon

monoxide, ozone, sulfur, sulfur dioxide, and lead, as well as emissions from hazardous

waste dumps (Suro, 1998).

         Robert D. Bullard, a sociologist at the University of California at Riverside,

showed in a past study in Houston, TX, that since the 1920s, all the city-owned landfills

and six of the eight garbage incinerators had been placed in black neighborhoods even

though Houston was once an overwhelmingly white city (Suro, 1998). The minorities-

environmental movement in the United States has grass roots counterparts in periphery

nations such as Costa Rica, India, and Indonesia. Organizations in the United States and

those in the periphery face arguments that pollution is an economic necessity (Suro, 1998).

These specious arguments are being refuted across the United States and in peripheral

nations around the world.

         In the United States, the evidence is overwhelming of the practice of bias in site

selection for waste management and disposal, with only a minimal acknowledgement of

best site selection data based on science. Where a choice exists of sites more or less equal,

ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic factors determine the final decision.        Residents of

Kettleman, CA, most of whom are Hispanic, were forced to wage a successful, though

expensive, court battle against a garbage incinerator, even though their San Joaquin Valley

town was already the site of a vast toxic waste landfill (Suro, 1998).

         Countless numbers of American minorities are victims of environmental practices

that target the least defended of U.S. citizens. A 1988 study concluded that black children,

regardless of income, were much more likely than white children to have unacceptably

high levels of lead in their blood. The sources are as varied as plumbing, house paint, and

contaminated soil (Suro, 1998). In response to the mounting evidence, President Bill

Clinton signed an Executive Order in 1994 defining environmental discrimination as

intentional or inadvertent acts that result in discrimination. He also created an interagency

working group involving eleven cabinet departments and agencies to develop and approve

strategies implementing his order (Suro, 1998). It is hoped his successor will renew the

order and continue the effort.


         Waste management policy based on any factors other than good science and

sound management is inherently flawed and damaging to the global community on several

fronts. First of all, nations and peoples are deprived of new and innovative practices that

would derive from scientific inquiry to solve the growing problem of waste disposal.

When we opt out for what appears to be the easy solution, we cease to search beyond the

problem for the next innovation. The example of Switzerland instructive.

        Switzerland, a country with no available dumpsites on land or sea, recognized an

approaching crisis some 20 years ago. Faced with that situation, the Swiss began to

explore every possible option for disposing of waste.       By 1995, they were already

recycling 31% of their waste, composting another 11%, and burning 45% to make energy.

The ash from the incinerators is recycled as construction material for roads and other

projects. The remainder of the rubbish, only 13%, is buried (Brown, 2000).

        But there is another reason for adhering to sound principles for waste disposal.

This reason is rooted in the concept of simple morality and fairness. It is an act of

immorality to subject the poorest, most deprived, most exploited peoples of the world to

further exploitation. It is immoral to heap environmental insult upon human misery. It is

foolish and destructive to continue to poison the least among the global family, and to

continue poisoning the land and resources upon which they --- and we all --- depend.


Knox, P. and S. Marston (2001). Places and Regions In Global Context, Human
Geography, 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

W1. “Per Capita Waste Generation Declining, EPA Study Says.”

Lee, G., P. Jones, A. Jones, and Assoc (1993). “Review of Proposed Landfills: Questions
That Should Be Answered.” Landfills and Water Quality Management.

Lee, G., A. Jones-Lee (1998). “Addressing Justifiable NIMBY: A Prescription For MSW
Management.” Landfills and Water Quality Management.

W2. “Japan Blamed For Coercing Thai Incinerator Purchases.”

W3. “Medical Waste Incineration Banned In Argentinean Capital.”

W4. “Highest Dutch Court Calls Ship „Toxic Waste,‟” (2002).

W5. “Greenpeace Intercepts European Ship Attempting to Illegally Dump Toxic Waste In
Turkey,” (2002).

Mitchell, D. (1998). “Lives of the Saints: The Loneliest Shipper.” New York Magazine.

Suro, R. (1998). “Pollution-Weary Minorities Try Civil Rights Tack.”
The New York Times.

Brown, P. (2000). “What A Waste!” The Guardian.


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