Generation of waste causes, consequences and how to avoid it

David Holt
Generation of waste causes, consequences and how to avoid it

The residuous generation It is the secondary production of material considered not useful, in a process of production, use or consumption. This is a concept fundamentally linked to human activity, since the waste produced by animals is part of biological cycles..

On the contrary, human residues, except strictly biological ones, are the product of the alteration of natural cycles of matter. This transformation of matter and energy is the fundamental cause of waste generation..

Solid waste generation in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Source: The Photographer [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

This occurs because no production process is one hundred percent efficient and waste is always generated. On the other hand, the objects produced have a useful life, at the end of which they become waste from the process of use or consumption. Among the specific causes of waste generation are production processes, mass consumption of products, obsolescence and marketing-advertising.

Some activities generate especially hazardous waste, such as mining, nuclear energy production, and medical activities. In turn, the generation of waste results in soil, water and air pollution and the deterioration of the landscape. It can also cause disease and affect wildlife..

Avoiding the generation of waste is almost impossible, but it is feasible to reduce it to its minimum expression. For example, if production processes at an industrial level become more efficient, the production of waste will be less..

On the other hand, a rational consumption reduces the excessive use of resources and therefore the generation of waste. Finally, waste can be reused or turned into raw material through recycling.

Article index

  • 1 Causes
    • 1.1 -Population growth and economic growth
    • 1.2 -Consumerism, obsolescence and marketing
    • 1.3 Industrial processes
    • 1.4 -Mining and oil
    • 1.5 -Atomic energy
    • 1.6 -Agricultural, livestock and fish farming activities
    • 1.7 -Urban activity
    • 1.8 -Construction and demolition
    • 1.9 -Health services, research laboratories and pharmaceuticals
  • 2 consequences
    • 2.1 Soil, water and air pollution
    • 2.2 Deterioration of the landscape
    • 2.3 Diseases
    • 2.4 Deterioration of wildlife
  • 3 How to avoid the generation of waste
    • 3.1 Efficiency and production quality
    • 3.2 Consumption and rational marketing
    • 3.3 Reuse
    • 3.4 Recycling
    • 3.5 Objects of biodegradable material
  • 4 Waste generation in Mexico
    • 4.1 Solid waste
    • 4.2 Gaseous waste: greenhouse gases
    • 4.3 Liquid waste: untreated sewage and runoff
  • 5 Waste generation in Colombia
    • 5.1 Solid waste
    • 5.2 Gaseous waste: greenhouse gases
    • 5.3 Liquid waste: untreated sewage and runoff
  • 6 References


-Population growth and economic growth

Taking into account that the main producer of waste is the human being, population growth is a determining factor in this problem. The human population grows exponentially and with it the demand for natural resources to satisfy various needs.

On the other hand, the production of goods to satisfy the growing demand and their consumption, generates a high rate of waste..

As the population increases, energy requirements increase, thus producing more oil, coal or nuclear waste. Likewise, a growing population requires more food, which implies a greater generation of agricultural, livestock and fishing residues..

On the other hand, population growth coupled with economic development also leads to the production of more cars, electrical appliances, medicines, buildings and therefore more waste..

Economic growth is another factor that affects the generation of waste, due to the fact that the strongest economies have a higher consumption. Thus, for example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produces more than 40% of the world's waste..

The OECD groups 36 countries that together generate almost 572 MT of solid waste per year. For their part, Latin America and the Caribbean generate about 150 million tons of solid waste each year.

-Consumerism, obsolescence and marketing

Consumption patterns are one of the main causes of waste generation. The economic system promotes an exacerbated consumerism of all kinds of goods.

In this sense, the higher the consumption the generation of waste increases associated with strategies such as planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence..


In planned obsolescence, products with a short useful life are designed to drive their replenishment in short cycles. On the other hand, perceived obsolescence encourages the consumer to substitute still useful products for newer ones..

All these discarded products become waste from the process of consuming goods.

Industrial processes

The generation of waste was increased with the development of the Industrial Revolution. For this reason, even when industrial processes become more efficient, waste production increases due to production volumes..

The textile, metallurgical, cement, chemical, plastics and oil refining industries are the ones that produce the highest amount of waste. In addition, these are among the most polluting that exist.

Small and medium businesses

There are small industries or service companies that produce waste that in some cases can be dangerous. For example, a metal fabrication plant may have hazardous waste associated with cleaning and processing its products..

On the other hand, a small convenience store, hardware store, small copy store, or even a general merchandise store can generate small amounts of hazardous waste..

Among them are fuels and oils, lacquers and paints, containing heavy metals, organic solvents and other toxic substances..

-Mining and oil

Mineral and oil extraction processes generate a large amount of toxic waste.


One of the most extreme cases is the extraction of gold in open pit mines, because highly toxic substances are used. The residues of substances such as mercury, arsenic and cyanide end up contaminating soils and waters.


Oil extraction processes generate as waste so-called drilling muds that contain high amounts of heavy metals. In the case of the hydraulic fracturing technique of the rock or fracking, additives are used that become waste from the process.

These additives include polyacrylamide (carcinogenic), ethylene glycol (affects the nervous system and causes metabolic problems) and glutaraldehyde (dermatitis and respiratory allergies)..

-Atomic Energy

Radioactive waste is among the most dangerous, particularly nuclear power plant fuel waste that has high activity. Likewise, radioactive waste is generated in industrial, agricultural and medical areas, although its radioactive activity is medium to low..

-Agricultural, livestock and fish farming activities


A large number of inputs are used in intensive agriculture, including fertilizers and biocides. Many of these inputs become waste from the agricultural process and end up polluting the environment.

On the other hand, as it is a highly mechanized agriculture, a high volume of fuels and lubricants is consumed. These compounds produce residues that can cause spills or generate greenhouse gases by combustion..

Livestock and fish farming

As in agriculture, animal production units generate a large amount of waste. In some cases, such as pig production, the sewage contains highly polluting organic and chemical residues..

In southern Chile, for example, salmon fish farming and the fish processing industry is a source of polluting waste. The main waste generated is organic, as well as antibiotics used in fish farming.

-Urban activity

Cities, especially overcrowded ones, are the largest waste generation centers. About 50% of waste worldwide is organic and most of it is generated from the commercialization and consumption processes in cities.


New York City, with almost 20 million inhabitants, produces about 33 million tons a year. In Latin America, Mexico City (21 million inhabitants) is the second in the world with 12 million tons per year.


Another of the main sources of polluting waste in cities is sewage that is not properly treated. In fact, all rivers near large cities have some degree of pollution from this cause.

-Construction and demolition

The construction and demolition of works generates solid waste mainly in the form of rubble. This debris can be highly polluting as it includes remains of paints, resins, metals and other components..

-Health services, research laboratories and pharmaceuticals

Hospitals and health services produce waste in many cases of high risk to public health. This waste includes human remains (blood, tissue), bacterial cultures, chemicals, and radioactive material..

Likewise, research laboratories in the biological area and with pharmaceutical laboratories generate a high number of waste. For example, a study carried out in Spain shows the dumping of up to 3 tons per year of 30 drugs in the Ebro river.


Toxic waste Source: Mampato [Public domain]

Contamination of soils, water and air

Much of the waste generated and poorly managed ends up in the soil, groundwater and surface water or in the atmosphere. Cities generate garbage and effluents that pollute the environment with heavy metals, organic matter and other waste.

Industries produce gases that pollute the soil, water and air through acid rain.

Deterioration of the landscape

Accumulations of solid waste and untreated effluents deteriorate the landscape, affecting recreational and tourist activities. The accumulation of garbage, bad smells and the proliferation of undesirable animals diminish the attractiveness of recreational areas.


Organic waste can carry disease-causing organisms. Some cases, such as hospital waste, are especially dangerous.

Untreated effluents from cities carry infectious-contagious diseases such as cholera, enteritis, and amoebiasis, among others. Heavy metals absorbed by plants and dissolved in water contaminate those who consume them.

Polluted air in large cities due to vehicular traffic and industries causes respiratory problems and dermatitis.

Deterioration of wildlife

Most of the waste generated by humans, when they enter ecosystems, alter their balance and affect wildlife. For example, oil well drilling residues or oil spills are deadly to aquatic and terrestrial fauna..

Likewise, acid rain affects forests and aquatic organisms and agricultural residues cause the death of animals and plants..

Eutrophication problems in water bodies are caused by an excess of nutrients. This is generated as a result of waste produced by untreated urban effluents or runoff waters that carry agricultural waste..

How to avoid the generation of waste

Recycling in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Source: Gelpgim22 (Sergio Panei Pitrau) [CC BY 3.0 (]

Any process of transformation of matter generates waste, but it is possible to reduce it to a minimum by making production processes more efficient. In this sense, comprehensive waste management seeks to minimize its generation through prevention or reduction, reuse and recycling..

Productive efficiency and quality

By using the principles of systems engineering, production processes are made more efficient and waste is reduced.

For this, it is important that the largest proportion of raw materials are part of the finished products. In this sense, a redesign of the production chain must be carried out or the incorporation of machinery with greater precision and efficiency..

Likewise, it is convenient to improve the quality and durability of equipment, machines and vehicles. In this way, these products take longer to transform into products..

Consumption and rational marketing

Another way to prevent the generation of waste is rational consumption, since a conscious consumer will restrict his demand for resources. In addition, if the demand is directed towards recycled or less polluting products, the production of waste will be reduced..

For example, you can promote the consumption of products with biodegradable packaging, or more durable and repairable goods..


These are products that can be used again for the original purpose or a different one. In this sense, when a good is designed, its subsequent reuse must be planned, as is the case with glass bottles..

Other examples are the use of tires to build swings or protection barriers, or plastic bottles to build the roof of a grow house. Likewise, discarded objects can be reused to create works of art in the field of modern sculpture..


Unlike reuse, recycling refers to giving a new use to the materials that make up a discarded object, not the object itself. In this sense, a large amount of solid waste can be recycled to take advantage of the raw materials that make it up.

An example of this is the recovery of metals and other components of electronic devices or the recycling of paper and cardboard..

Biodegradable material objects

Biodegradation is the decomposition of a material by the action of living organisms, mainly bacteria and fungi. Thus, products with biodegradable plastics can be designed.

In this way, the waste generated will disappear in the short term without producing negative effects on the environment..

Waste generation in Mexico

Solid waste

Mexico ranks first in Latin America in the generation of solid waste, especially urban garbage. It is estimated that more than 86,000 tons of garbage are produced per day throughout the country, of which 13,000 tons originate in Mexico City..

On the other hand, construction and demolition generate a high amount of waste, estimating that by 2001 7 million tons / year were produced.

Gaseous waste: greenhouse gases

This country is the main emitter of greenhouse gases in the region. According to the National Inventory of Greenhouse Gases and Compounds (INEGYCEI), Mexico emitted 683 million tons of carbon dioxide.

Liquid waste: untreated sewage and runoff

In Mexico, industries produce more than 5 km3 of wastewater per year and urban centers around 7 km3 of wastewater per year. Due to poor treatment these effluents carry polluting residues.

These pollutants include organic matter, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus), microorganisms (fecal coliforms), heavy metals, and hydrocarbon derivatives. The industries that produce the most liquid waste in Mexico are sugar, chemical and oil.

Waste generation in Colombia

Solid waste

Colombia generates around 11.6 million tons of solid waste per year, of which it only recycles 17%. According to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) by 2015 more than 60% of the solid waste produced was organic, followed by plastics.

Regarding hospital waste, the city of Bogotá generated more than 350 tons during 2015. On the other hand, it is estimated that in the city of Medellín more than 600,000 tons of construction and demolition waste are generated per year.

Gaseous waste: greenhouse gases

Between 1990 and 2014, Colombia increased greenhouse gas emissions by 10%. The largest contributions come from deforestation and agricultural activities followed by mining.

Liquid waste: untreated sewage and runoff

The agricultural, industrial and domestic sectors together produce about 9,000 tons of organic matter residues through sewage. Among the contributions of industrial waste, the 85 tons of beer per day that were dumped into waterways in 1985 stand out..

Likewise, hazardous waste such as volatile organic compounds, halogenated solvents and heavy metals are produced. Among the industries that contribute the most liquid waste discharges to the environment are petroleum, chemical and tannery refining.


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