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Treatment and disposal of municipal waste

As cities are growing in size with a rise in the population, the amount of waste generated is increasing becoming unmanageable. The local corporations have adapted different methods for the disposal of waste – open dumps, landfills, sanitary landfills, and incineration plants. One of the important methods of waste treatment is composting.

Open dumps

Open dumps refer to uncovered areas that are used to dump solid waste of all kinds. The waste is untreated, uncovered, and not segregated. It is the breeding ground for flies, rats, and other insects that spread disease. The rainwater run-off from these dumps contaminates nearby land and water thereby spreading disease. In some countries, open dumps are being phased out.

Landfills

Landfills are generally located in urban areas where a large amount of waste is generated and has to be dumped in a common place. Unlike an open dump, it is a pit that is dug in the ground. The garbage is dumped and the pit is covered thus preventing the breeding of flies and rats. At the end of each day, a layer of soil is scattered on top of it and some mechanism, usually an earth-moving equipment is used to compress the garbage, which now forms a cell. Thus, every day, garbage is dumped and becomes a cell. After the landfill is full, the area is covered with a thick layer of mud and the site can thereafter be developed as a parking lot or a park.

Landfills have many problems. All types of waste is dumped in landfills and when water seeps through them it gets contaminated and in turn pollutes the surrounding area. This contamination of groundwater and soil through landfills is known as leaching.

Sanitary landfills

An alternative to landfills which will solve the problem of leaching to some extent, is a sanitary landfill which is more hygienic and built in a methodical manner. These are lined with materials that are impermeable such as plastics and clay, and are also built over impermeable soil. Constructing sanitary landfills is very costly and they are have their own problems. Some authorities claim that often the plastic liner develops cracks as it reacts with various chemical solvents present in the waste.

The rate of decomposition in sanitary landfills is also extremely variable. This can be due to the fact that less oxygen is available as the garbage is compressed very tightly. It has also been observed that some biodegradable materials do not decompose in a landfill. Another major problem is the development of methane gas, which occurs when little oxygen is present, i.e. during anaerobic decomposition. In some countries, the methane being produced from sanitary landfills is tapped and sold as fuel.

Incineration plants

This process of burning waste in large furnaces is known as incineration. In these plants the recyclable material is segregated and the rest of the material is burnt. At the end of the process all that is left behind is ash. During the process some of the ash floats out with the hot air. This is called fly ash. Both the fly ash and the ash that is left in the furnace after burning have high concentrations of dangerous toxins such as dioxins and heavy metals. Disposing of this ash is a problem. The ash that is buried at the landfills leaches the area and cause severe contamination.

Burning garbage is not a clean process as it produces tonnes of toxic ash and pollutes the air and water. A large amount of the waste that is burnt here can be recovered and recycled. In fact, at present, incineration is kept as the last resort and is used mainly for treating the infectious waste.