Solid Waste

How much solid waste do you throw away per day – think about paper, plastic bottles, packaging, and even food waste. It all adds up pretty quickly!

Solid Waste Solid Waste

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Table of contents

    The average UK resident produces 400 kilograms of waste per year – just over 1 kilogram per day. If it's not managed properly, it can cause pollution. This leads to health problems and ecological damage.

    Don't waste your time; start reading this article!

    Solid Waste: Definition

    Let's begin with a definition.

    Solid waste is unwanted or useless solid materials generated by human activities.

    Often referred to as municipal solid waste, it's classified and treated according to its properties.

    Did you know that the UK spends over £11.5 billion on solid waste management every year?

    Solid Waste Pollution

    Improper management or disposal of solid waste can cause pollution.

    Solid waste is considered unsightly. Nobody likes to see refuse sacks left on street corners, or waste overflowing from a public bin. If solid waste is left for a while, it can start to smell unpleasant.

    Solid Waste litter StudySmarterFig. 1 – Keep Britain Tidy estimated that over 2 million pieces of litter are dropped every single day in the UK! Source:

    Unfortunately, visual pollution isn't the only consequence of solid waste. Buildup of untreated waste can cause air pollution and disease. Furthermore, harmful solid waste can directly impact human health and the environment.

    Effects of Solid Waste on Human Health and the Environment

    If waste is left untreated, it can impact human health and the environment.

    Waterways and Disease

    Unmanaged waste can leak into waterways, affecting marine organisms. If the waste contains sewage or chemicals, oxygen is depleted. Fish and other aquatic organisms suffocate, while the introduction of nutrients encourages rapid algal growth. These algal blooms prevent aquatic plants from photosynthesising.

    Polluted waters can cause fish to change sex! Male fish living downstream of wastewater treatment works experienced gonadal feminisation; developing eggs and experiencing hormone disruption. It's been suggested that wastewater treatment effluent has an oestrogenic effect on wild fish.

    If humans ingest contaminated water, they risk developing severe diseases.

    Ingesting Vibrio cholerae bacteria causes a disease called cholera. Symptoms include diarrhoea and severe dehydration. Nearly 3 million cases of cholera occur annually, usually related to drinking polluted water.

    Air Pollution

    Hazardous waste can emit pollutants into the atmosphere, such as:

    • Vinyl chloride: a known carcinogen

    • Benzene: a known carcinogen

    • Ethyl benzene: causes liver damage and paralysis

    • Toluene: causes inflammation and organ damage

    A carcinogen is a substance capable of causing cancer.

    Ineffective E-waste Management

    E-waste is often incinerated without proper equipment or safety protocol. This leads to air pollution, which causes a plethora of health effects. As well as respiratory complaints, nearby residents suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), hypoxemia (low oxygen concentration in the blood) and exposure to heavy metals.

    E-waste refers to end-of-life electronics.

    Marine Plastic Pollution

    Some plastics can take up to 500 years to decompose. If it reaches the ocean, it can affect marine life. Animals frequently ingest plastic accidentally, or become tangled in plastic packaging materials. Sadly, this can be fatal.

    Six-pack rings are thin pieces of plastic used to keep cans together. In 1987, it was reported that 100,000 marine mammals were killed by six-pack rings every year.

    Solid Waste six-pack ring marine life StudySmarterFig. 2 – Although they look harmless, six-pack rings strangle millions of animals every year. Source:

    Marine plastic pollution is slowly eroded into microplastics (plastics less than 5mm in diameter). These have been found in commercial seafood and even drinking water.


    Solid waste pollution impacts wellbeing. Studies have found that littered environments cause stress and depressive symptoms.

    Examples of Solid Waste

    Think about how many different items you put in the bin. Solid waste is a broad category! To make things easier, we're going to narrow it down, focusing on just a few types of solid waste.

    Domestic WasteDomestic waste is any waste that is generated in the home from day-to-day activities.
    Specialist Solid WastesSpecialist solid wastes are wastes that carry particular environmental or health risks. They must be separated and treated individually.
    Radioactive WasteRadioactive waste is hazardous waste containing radioactive material, usually originating from nuclear power stations.
    AsbestosAsbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous silicate material. It was widely used as an insulating material, but it has since been identified as a carcinogen.
    CyanideCyanide is a fast-acting poison. A major source of cyanide waste is industrial wastewater.

    Controlling Solid Waste Pollution

    Now that we've learned about the problems associated with solid waste, it's time to find out how to solve them.

    Domestic Waste

    Domestic waste is treated in one of four ways.

    • Landfill: domestic waste is dumped in a landfill site. It's a cheap method of waste management, but pollutes the environment, releasing harmful leachate and methane gas.

    • Incineration: waste material is burned to produce energy. It can power homes and essential infrastructure, but the associated air pollution impacts the health of those living nearby.

    • Recycling: certain types of waste are converted into reusable products. It reduces the demand for natural resources, but recycled products aren't as durable.

    • Composting: organic waste matter is converted into nutrient-rich soils. It improves soil quality, but requires regular work and monitoring.

    For more detail, refer to our article on domestic waste.

    Specialist Solid Wastes

    Controlling specialist solid waste involves changing its characteristics to:

    • Reduce its volume

    • Make it less hazardous

    • Make it easier to handle

    • Make it easier to recover

    Mixing special waste with regular waste doesn't qualify as treatment.

    Some specialist wastes (e.g. solvents, waste oil, and metals) can be recovered and recycled.

    Others can be incinerated to generate power. These require specialist incinerators, which work at extremely high temperatures and have strict emission controls.

    Solid Waste incineration plant StudySmarterFig. 3 – The Würzberg Waste-to-Energy plant, Germany. Source:

    Radioactive Waste

    Radioactive waste is split into three categories, each requiring different disposal methods.

    Low-level Waste

    Approximately 94% of radioactive waste is categorised as low-level, experiencing relatively low levels of radioactivity. Most low-level waste originates from the operation and decommission of nuclear facilities, but some comes from universities and hospitals.

    The waste is grouted in metal containers, then stacked into concrete-lined, highly engineered vaults. When the vaults are full, they will be covered by a cap.

    Intermediate-level Waste

    Around 6% of radioactive waste is categorised as intermediate-level. It exceeds the radiation limits of low-level waste, but does not generate heat. Most intermediate-level waste comes from nuclear reactor components and sludge from effluent treatment.

    The waste is treated by super-compacting, cutting, or drying. Then, it is placed into stainless-steel containers inside concrete boxes.

    High-level Waste

    Less than 1% of all radioactive waste is categorised as high-level. Usually found in liquid form, this waste is hot due to its radioactivity. Sources of high-level waste include reactor operation and reprocessing nuclear fuel.

    The liquid waste is mixed with crushed glass in a furnace to produce a molten product. It's poured into stainless-steel canisters for long-term storage (at least 50 years). Over that time, the radioactivity will dissipate, and the waste will cool down.


    Any waste containing, or contaminated by, asbestos is placed in secure, permanent storage. It is double-bagged, clearly labelled, and placed in a locked skip. Any clothing or PPE that comes into contact with asbestos should also be disposed of.

    PPE stands for personal protective equipment.

    In the UK, 5000 workers die every year from asbestos-related illnesses. That's more people than those killed in road accidents! Asbestos exposure can cause the following conditions:

    • Mesothelioma: a cancer affecting the lining of the lungs and the lower digestive tract
    • Lung cancer: similar to lung cancer caused by smoking
    • Asbestosis: scarring of the lungs after chronic exposure, causing shortness of breath
    • Pleural thickening: the lining of the lungs swells, causing shortness of breath and discomfort


    Cyanide ions (CN-) are highly toxic. Ingesting just 200 mg can cause immediate unconsciousness and death. Thus, any waste containing cyanide should be dealt with carefully, and kept away from other waste to avoid contamination. Cyanide is then destroyed by high-temperature incineration at 1000ºC.

    I hope that this article has explained solid waste for you. Improper management or disposal of solid waste can cause pollution, impacting health and the environment. Solid waste is classified and treated according to its properties.

    Solid Waste - Key takeaways

    • Solid waste is unwanted or useless solid materials generated by human activities.
    • Improper management of solid waste can cause a range of problems, such as disease, air pollution, marine plastic pollution, and negative impacts on wellbeing.
    • Domestic waste is controlled using landfill sites, incineration, recycling, or composting.
    • Specialist solid waste is treated separately from regular waste.
    • Radioactive waste is treated according to its level of radioactivity.

    1. Anthony Nicome, Can Litter Affect Mental Health?, Trash Free Maryland, 2019

    2. Chariot Energy, How Long Does It Take for Plastic to Decompose?, 2021

    3. Charles R. Tyler, Roach, Sex, and Gender-Bending Chemicals: The Feminization of Wild Fish in English Rivers, BioScience, 2008

    4. Health and Safety Executive, Why is asbestos dangerous?, 2022

    5. Ian Tiseo, Waste management spending by the government in the United Kingdom (UK) 2000-2019, Statista, 2021

    6. Keep Britain Tidy, Litter & the Law, 2022

    7. Mohammad Ali, Updated Global Burden of Cholera in Endemic Countries, PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2015

    8. S. Kampe, Survival from a lethal blood concentration of cyanide with associated alcohol intoxication, Anaethesia, 2000

    9. Sarah Gibbens, Saving the Ocean From Plastic Six-Pack Rings, National Geographic, 2018

    10. UK Radioactive Waste Inventory, What are the main waste categories?, 2022

    11. York Recycling, Waste Production in the UK, 2022

    Frequently Asked Questions about Solid Waste

    What is solid waste and its types?

    Solid waste refers to unwanted or useless solid materials generated by human activities. Examples of solid waste include domestic waste, specialist solid wastes, radioactive waste, asbestos, and cyanide.

    How does solid waste affect the environment?

    Solid waste pollutes waterways and the atmosphere, causing disease. Plastic pollution is particularly harmful to marine life.

    How is the environment polluted by solid waste?

    Unmanaged waste can leak into waterways. Alternatively, improper incineration of waste releases pollutants into the atmosphere.

    What are the causes of solid waste?

    Solid waste originates from households, businesses, industry, power plants, and agriculture.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How much food does the UK throw away every year?

    Why does the UK produce so much food waste?

    How much of the UK's plastic waste comes from single-use packaging?

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