What are the challenges of reducing solid waste?

By: Jennifer Sellers

Beyond Recycling

At this point, recycling may seem like a no-brainer. We've all heard about it, and we know it reduces solid waste. However, it is only one element of trash reduction. There are additional things that you, an average citizen, can do to reduce waste. And, there are options that scientists and waste management experts are pursuing.

If you look at our trash problem as a disease, recycling is an antidote, but a method called source reduction is a vaccine. It seeks to keep waste from occurring in the first place. Garbage will always exist, but it can be reduced. An important target of source reduction is packaging.


As a consumer, you can help reduce the waste associated with packaging in several ways. When you're ordering several items, request to have them sent in one shipment rather than multiple shipments. If you're buying off store shelves, look for unpackaged items. And consider buying in bulk. By buying many or larger items packaged together, you can cut back on the multiple packages associated with frequent buying.

Source reduction is something fairly easy and common that any of us can engage in to reduce solid waste, but garbage experts have a more complex way of getting rid of garbage: combustion. With this method, cities, counties or private contractors will incinerate garbage in a controlled burn. According to the EPA, around 12 percent of our garbage is handled in this manner. And, many of the incinerators that burn trash are run by refuse-derived fuel. Landfills create greenhouse gasses (primarily methane) that can be trapped and used as fuel. These gasses can also be sold to other industries as a "greener" source of energy.

But scientists are working on something much more spectacular than ordinary combustion: plasma blasting. In this method, garbage is vaporized by a plasma torch. Plasma is a collection of charged particles that can blaze garbage at temperatures as high as 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5,537 degrees Celsius), turning organic trash into vapor or melting inorganic trash into solid, rock-like materials. Not only does it generate fewer emissions than incineration because of the high temperatures it produces and the resulting disassociation of organic compounds it causes, but it also creates a synthetic gas that can be harnessed and used as an energy source. In addition, post-plasma melted garbage can be used as construction materials. The first U.S. plasma refuse plant is expected to open in Florida in late 2010. There are already two in operation in Japan.