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
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
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
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
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.