What Is Waste Management — And Why Is It So Important?

By Maura Monaghan on January 12, 2024
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What Is Waste Management — And Why Is It So Important?
Maura Monaghan
Maura Monaghan

Maura Monaghan has been a digital writer for five years now, covering everything from sustainable ecommerce to types of plastic. She's interested in ecommerce, sustainability, and the ways they can overlap. When she's not writing, she's probably out searching for the perfect cup of coffee.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) is projected to reach 3.4 billion tons worldwide by 2050 – and that’s a lot of material that needs to be dealt with (or prevented!) properly.

Waste management covers all of the ways that waste can be handled – but some are better than others, which is why we’ve written this guide to tell you more about the best and worst ways to manage your own waste. 

At CleanHub, we’re committed to helping brands improve their environmental impact and work toward a more circular economy. Want to get involved? Get in touch with our experts today to learn about how you can reduce your business’s plastic footprint.

 

What’s on this page?

01 | What is waste management?
02 | Different waste management methods
03 | What’s the difference between informal and formal waste management? 
04 | Why is waste management important?
05 | Global problems with waste management
06 | What are the five Rs of waste management?
07 | Waste management services
08 | How will waste management work in a circular economy?
09 | FAQs

 

What is waste management? 

Waste management is a term that refers to all of the various actions taken and plans created to manage waste, from composting or recycling existing waste to minimizing the production of waste in the first place. 

You’ll sometimes hear “waste management” used interchangeably with “waste disposal,” but that’s not quite accurate. The latter is actually just one potential component of waste management – and waste management covers the entire lifecycle of waste, from its creation through to its disposal or recovery.

Because we currently produce so much waste – plastic waste alone comes to 400 million tons annually – managing it all is a complex process, and different countries and regions have created different answers to the challenge. Even some states and counties have come up with their own systems on this front. 

Laws around the world are reflecting these efforts, including the 2021 EU ban on single-use plastics and a 2023 waste charging scheme in Hong Kong. 

 

 

Different waste management methods 

When you think of waste management, the first image you have may be of disposal in a landfill. But there are other, more beneficial ways to handle the problem.

Recycling 

Recycling is a key part of a circular economy, because it involves processing materials that would otherwise become waste, and instead turning them into new items.

Recycling is far preferable to disposal, because it reduces waste while also reducing the amount of energy needed to manufacture products – and yet, only 9% of plastic is recycled worldwide. That said, recycling itself requires energy, so reducing waste and reusing existing items are still preferable options.

Recycling is common in wealthier countries, but that’s often because they can send their recyclable waste overseas to be processed. Occasionally, that waste isn’t entirely recyclable, leaving the receiving countries to bear the burden of waste disposal – Malaysia, for example, recently sent back five containers of plastic waste to Spain after it was found to be contaminated.  

Incineration 

Waste incineration involves burning hazardous materials at temperatures high enough to destroy contaminants. This method reduces the amount of material that gets dumped in landfills, which has a positive impact. However, incineration releases chemicals and pollutants into the air, which are harmful to both the environment and to humans. 

Waste-to-energy

This process takes non-hazardous waste and combusts it rather than dumping it in a landfill. It’s a good alternative to landfills, because the combustion process generates energy. This way, waste can be converted into electricity and/or steam power.

In recent years, many EU countries have been using the waste-to-energy method to adhere to ESG requirements, and the future’s looking good for this popular waste management method: in Europe, the waste-to-energy market size was estimated to be $13.88 billion in 2022, and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 14.4% from 2023 to 2030.

Landfill

A landfill is a piece of land that’s used as a dumping ground for solid waste. This method often contaminates soil and groundwater. It’s also antithetical to the concept of a circular economy, because landfill waste is not repurposed or reintroduced into the lifecycle.  

Anaerobic digestion

One form of waste management that’s especially encouraging is anaerobic digestion. During this process, bacteria break down organic matter (think food waste or animal manure) in the absence of oxygen. 

The result is biogas which can be used for energy – so this type of waste management is a great example of the circular economy, because the materials are being reintroduced to the lifecycle in a useful way.

Want your business to work towards a circular economy? Speak to our in-house experts who can assess your packaging, and discuss which steps your brand can take to reach your goal. 

 

What's the difference between informal and formal waste management?

Formal waste management refers to both public service providers and private companies that handle waste from the time it is discarded (for example, when a household leaves its waste out on collection night) to the time it is “managed” – whether that be in a landfill, a recovery facility, and so on. 

Formal waste management organizations are registered, regulated bodies that comply with the laws and rules created to govern the sector in their region. 

Informal waste management, on the other hand, refers to individuals, such as waste pickers, who work for often unregistered organizations that aren’t fully compliant with their region’s regulations. 

These workers are often at a disadvantage – if their employers aren’t doing things by the book, then it can mean they’re not receiving state-mandated minimum wages or the proper occupational health standards for hazardous working conditions. 

This poor treatment impacts a lot of people – in fact, approximately 15 million people around the world are involved in informal waste recycling, mainly for plastics, metals, glass, and paper. 

Informal waste management can sometimes negatively impact the environment, because it lacks the required technology for proper waste segregation – for example, between recyclable and non-recyclable materials. 

It’s also been found that informal waste management exacerbates air, soil, and water pollution due to the improper management of secondary pollutants that are formed by chemical reactions.

 

waste management 2

 

Why is waste management important?

As long as we are producing waste, it will need to be managed. And we produce a lot of it: over two billion metric tons of MSW are generated globally every year, a figure that’s expected to grow by about 70% by 2050.

It’s clear that waste must be managed. But the way in which we manage the waste matters, too – when it’s managed properly, it can do a lot of great things for the environment. We’ll explain some of these benefits below.

Reduces plastic pollution 

By reducing the amount of waste that gets disposed of in landfills or littered in the environment, and instead repurposing or recycling existing materials, we can reduce plastic pollution across the board. 

This, in turn, would help keep toxins out of soil and groundwater, as well as make the oceans safer for wildlife. 

Avoids landfill buildup 

The less waste we need to dispose of, the less it builds up in landfills – which is important since the US alone sends nearly 150 million tons of garbage into landfills each year instead of recycling it. 

And when that reduced amount of waste does need to be managed, we can instead handle it in ways that produce electricity or steam power. 

Improves living conditions

Proper waste management means less contamination of our air, groundwater, and soil – which means higher quality food products and healthier wildlife. 

Well-organized, formal waste management also means that the workers handling the waste will have better pay and better protection from hazardous materials. 

Encourages a circular economy 

Because waste management is all about reducing the amount of waste we produce and minimizing the impact of existing waste, it fits neatly into the structure of a circular economy in which products and materials are repurposed at the end of their lifecycle. 

 

Global problems with waste management

The World Bank estimates that at least 33% of today’s waste is mismanaged around the world through open dumping or burning. 

These practices can have big consequences: residue from burning contaminates soil and groundwater, and can even enter our food chain via crops and livestock. Open burning also releases pollutants like CO2 into the atmosphere.

It doesn’t have to be burning, either – landfill mismanagement on its own causes toxic metal pollution in water, soil, and crops. 

Often, low-income countries are unable to build the proper infrastructure for waste management, because it’s such an expensive process – the market was valued at $1.3 trillion in 2022, with a projected growth rate of 5.4% from 2023 to 2030. 

Which countries lack efficient waste management? 

One survey of 38 countries found that Turkey, Latvia, and Chile have the worst waste management, owing to factors like the amount of waste that’s recycled vs the amount that’s disposed of in landfills. 

Turkey recycled 47 kg per capita in 2022, while almost 347 kg was left in landfills. In Latvia, 155 kg was recycled and 253 kg dumped into landfills, while Chile recycled only 2 kg of its waste and left 417 kg in landfills. 

The above study didn’t take most Asian countries into account, and that region’s stats are also worth noting: the World Bank estimates that the urban areas of Asia produce about 760,000 tons of MSW per day, and open waste dumping has become the most common method in Asia’s low and middle-income countries. 

Of course, prevention is the best medicine, and by that logic, the best waste management approach is to produce less waste. This means that the countries generating the most municipal waste – namely, the United States, China, and Germany – have a lot to answer for, regardless of how they manage it. 

 

 

What are the five Rs of waste management?

The “five Rs” are an ordered list of the actions that should ideally be taken prior to recycling: refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and then recycle. 

By treating recycling almost as a last resort, the five Rs help to minimize waste and ensure that nothing is disposed of unless it truly can’t serve any other purpose first.

Here’s a closer look at what each of these “Rs” actually means:

  • Refuse: Refusing waste means not acquiring it in the first place, so by default, it’s the best way to minimize your output. For example, if you’re running a small business, you could tell your vendors that you won’t buy products with unnecessary packaging.
  • Reduce: The next-best thing you can do is reduce the amount of waste that you generate. For example, if you can’t refuse to print a document, you can reduce the resulting waste by printing it on double-sided paper.
  • Reuse: Single-use plastics do major harm to the environment: at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. By replacing these types of items with reusable counterparts – like metal cutlery, for example – you can play a role in reducing that damage. 
  • Repurpose: If an item can’t be reused, you might be able to find a different purpose for it instead. Some people call this upcycling, and it’s a fun chance to get creative with what you already have!
  • Recycle: And last comes recycling. If you’ve gone through the first four “Rs” and can’t find a way to make use of the item, then this is finally your best option. 

Want to reduce your business’s plastic footprint? We can help. All you have to do is get in touch with our in-house team. Once we’ve received your details, we can arrange a call to discuss which plastic recovery plan will best suit your business needs. 

 

Waste management services

The different services used to manage waste will depend on plenty of factors, including the type and amount of waste produced. There are plenty of ways to get started handling waste more efficiently: 

  • Audit: In order to create an effective waste management plan, businesses can conduct an audit to figure out the type, quantity, and frequency of the waste they produce
  • Plan: Using the information from such an audit, the business can have a formal waste management service draw up a plan for disposing of its waste. This will usually include a cost estimate
  • Equipment: Depending on the plan, businesses may receive equipment from the waste management company. This could be as simple as designated recycling bins
  • Collection: Waste managers collect the waste as needed
  • Tracking: By organizing their waste management efforts, businesses can track their progress against predetermined goals 

 

How will waste management work in a circular economy?

Once waste is collected in a circular economy, it would then be sorted and either prepared for reuse, or recycled efficiently. 

Natural materials, like glass, paper, and some plastics, can be more easily recycled than other materials. However, recent developments such as ultra-fast pyrolysis and anaerobic digestion are showing that new possibilities for managing plastic waste are always on the horizon. 

 

Summary

Waste management is an inescapable challenge of our times – whenever waste is produced, it needs to be managed well and with the potential environmental impacts in mind. 

At CleanHub, we’re committed to helping brands improve their environmental impact by managing plastic waste. Want to get involved? Get in touch with our experts today to learn about how you can reduce your business’s plastic footprint and work toward a more circular economy.

 

FAQs

What is waste management in simple words?

“Waste management” is a term used to refer to all of the ways that waste is dealt with throughout its lifecycle, from recycling or composting existing waste to minimizing its production in the first place.

Why is waste management important?

Waste management is a key element in a circular economy, which means it’s an important way that we can help keep products and their materials circulating beyond their first use. When done properly, waste management helps us avoid unnecessary disposal and environmental damage.

What are the 5 ways of waste management?

The five “Rs” of waste management are refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle. They’re meant to serve as a guide on what to try before deciding to recycle waste.

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