Many urban centers have been unable to develop successful solid waste and wastewater management plans. As cities grow in size the costs associated with treatment and disposal amplify, along with the negative environmental impact. Several metropolitan areas, including New York, have closed their landfills and have had to truck refuse out of state, or continue to dump untreated wastewater into local rivers due to an aging combined sewer system, at extraordinary cost. Failure to have a comprehensive and effective waste management plan is quickly becoming cost-prohibitive.
A successful waste management program requires several overlapping elements. City government must have a unified vision to implement a long-term strategy that is flexible enough to expand with urban development; infrastructure must be in place to ensure the waste is managed efficiently; and public education and engagement are necessary to drive personal choice and behavioral change with regard to recycling and consumption. A combination of these 3 elements will help reduce waste, limiting costs and environmental impact; it should also create a new industry for employment.
There are three approaches that should be used in tandem to deal with waste and wastewater:
Reduce: It should be taken as a given that the most cost-effective way to deal with waste is to not produce it, however this effort needs the most attention and public education. Incentives have been used to replace water inefficient appliances, plastic bags are being eliminated from stores, and there has been a movement to reduce consumer packaging, however less effort has been made on reducing consumer consumption. However, the Shared Economy is emerging out of financial necessity and personal choice, which will help reduce total consumption.
Reuse: Rather than sending waste to decompose in landfills, or discharging untreated wastewater into local waterways, many communities are reusing the material in numerous ways. Efforts include composting or waste-to-energy plants to manage organic material, or cleansing wastewater to reuse for grey water purposes. Not only do these solutions reduce total expenditure of transporting waste, but have positive by-products such as renewable energy, methane capture and reuse, and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).
Recycle: For a successful recycling plan, the city must have a flexible and convenient infrastructure for the consumer. Citizens are more likely to recycle using one bin for solid waste and another for organic waste, picked up at the curb on a bi-weekly basis. Additionally, recycling centers should be centrally located to reduce GHG emissions in trucking the material, and local markets should be created to re-purpose the material instead of exporting it. Recycling reduces the amount of material going to landfills, which saves money, but the material can also be sold to generate a source of revenue.
Although efforts to use water more efficiently and reduce energy usage are underway, there has been no movement to encourage a reduction in consumer consumption. Our current economic model encourages unrestrained growth which one could argue is in direct opposition to sustainable development. We may need to internalize the externalities, in other words add the price of waste management and pollution to a product, in order to reduce consumption or decrease consumer packaging. Otherwise cities will be forced to absorb the increasing cost of managing their garbage and the taxpayers will be left with the bill.