What Is Solid Waste?

The United States produces nearly 292 million tons of solid waste each year. Between households, businesses, schools and other organizations, that’s more than 1,700 pounds of trash per person we throw away on average.


What is solid waste?


Solid waste refers to any discarded or unwanted materials. It includes various items such as paper, plastics, glass and food waste. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act also states that solid waste can include sludge from industrial plants or other discarded materials that result from industrial, commercial, mining and agricultural operations.

what is solid waste

While solid waste is often considered a solid state, the RCRA states that this type of waste does not have to be physically solid. In fact, many solid wastes are liquid, semi-solid or contain gaseous material.  


According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), To be considered a solid waste, the material must be discarded by being:


  • Abandoned (disposed of, burned, incinerated or sham recycled)
  • Inherently waste-like (for example, dioxin-containing wastes)
  • Discarded military munition (unused or defective, and must be abandoned, rendered nonrecyclable, or declared a waste by an authorized military official)
  • Recycled in certain ways (such as if the waste is burned for energy recovery or as an ingredient in a process)


Nearly everything we do generates waste, and if you’re a business, it’s important to understand the implications of handling and transporting waste safely. This begins with understanding the different types of solid waste you generate and ensuring its proper disposal.

Types Of Solid Waste


Solid waste can come from a variety of sources and consist of multiple types of trash generated from different human activities. These waste types can be categorized into several groups based on their origin, composition and characteristics:

  • Municipal Solid Waste (MSW): This type includes everyday items discarded by households, such as paper, plastics, food scraps, textiles, packaging materials, yard waste and household hazardous waste like batteries or cleaning products.
  • Industrial Waste: Generated by industrial processes and manufacturing activities, industrial waste comprises materials like scrap metal, chemicals, solvents, sludge and other by-products from factories and production facilities.
  • Commercial Waste: Originating from commercial establishments such as offices, restaurants, shops and institutions, this waste type includes paper, packaging materials, food waste and other discarded items.
  • Construction and Demolition Debris (C&D): Generated from construction, renovation and demolition activities, C&D waste includes concrete, wood, bricks, asphalt, metals, drywall and other materials used in building structures.
  • Hazardous Waste: Materials that pose a risk to human health or the environment due to their toxic, flammable, corrosive or reactive nature are considered hazardous. This category includes items like batteries, fluorescent bulbs, pesticides, certain chemicals and medical waste.
  • Electronic Waste (E-waste): Discarded electronic devices and equipment, such as computers, televisions, smartphones and appliances, can contain hazardous materials like lead, mercury and other components that require specialized handling and disposal.
  • Agricultural Waste: Generated from farming activities, agricultural waste includes crop residues, animal manure, pesticides and other waste produced in agricultural processes.

While solid waste is often an all-encompassing term, how each type is managed depends heavily on its composition, characteristics, regulations, available infrastructure and the feasibility of recycling.

How Solid Waste Is Managed


The diverse types of solid waste outlined above each require different management approaches, including recycling, composting, incineration, landfill disposal or other specialized treatments to minimize their environmental impact and promote sustainable waste management practices.


Here’s a closer look at these strategies:

  • Recycling: Recycling involves the collection, sorting, processing and conversion of waste materials into new products. It helps conserve natural resources, reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills or incinerators, and decreases energy consumption compared to producing new materials from raw resources. Commonly recycled materials include paper, plastics, glass, metals and certain types of electronics.
  • Composting: Composting is the biological decomposition of organic waste, such as food scraps, yard waste and certain paper products, into nutrient-rich soil amendments. It's a natural process that produces compost, a valuable resource for enriching soil fertility and enhancing plant growth. Composting reduces methane emissions from landfills and decreases the need for chemical fertilizers.
  • Incineration: Incineration, also known as waste-to-energy, involves burning solid waste at high temperatures in controlled settings to generate heat or electricity. While it reduces the volume of waste and can produce energy, it also raises concerns about air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and the release of toxic substances if not properly managed.
  • Landfill Disposal: Landfills are designated areas where waste is deposited and covered with soil to minimize environmental contamination. Properly engineered and managed landfills include liners and systems to collect leachate (liquid formed as waste decomposes) and methane gas, reducing potential groundwater contamination and methane emissions. However, landfills can pose environmental risks if not managed correctly and can contribute to soil and water pollution.
  • Specialized Treatments: Some types of waste, such as hazardous waste or certain industrial by-products, require specialized treatment methods to neutralize or detoxify hazardous components before disposal. These treatments may include chemical, physical or biological processes to render the waste less harmful to the environment.

Effective solid waste management involves a combination of these methods while prioritizing waste reduction, reuse and recycling wherever feasible. As a business owner, it’s important to understand the impact of these different types of waste and how to manage them, particularly when some of your solid waste is considered hazardous.

Solid Waste Vs. Hazardous Waste


When does solid waste become hazardous? Hazardous waste is defined by specific characteristics that make it potentially harmful to human health and the environment. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) in the United States identifies four primary characteristics of hazardous waste:

  • Ignitability: This characteristic refers to waste that can easily catch fire and ignite at relatively low temperatures. Materials exhibiting ignitability include liquids with a flashpoint below 140 degrees Fahrenheit, solids capable of causing fire through friction or absorption of moisture, and compressed gasses. Examples include solvents, gasoline, certain paints and aerosol cans.
  • Corrosivity: Corrosive waste is highly acidic or alkaline and can corrode metals or cause damage to living tissues upon contact. Waste with a pH less than or equal to 2 or greater than or equal to 12.5 is considered corrosive. Examples include battery acid (sulfuric acid), certain cleaning agents and rust removers.
  • Reactivity: Reactive waste is unstable and can undergo violent reactions when exposed to heat, pressure or water. It can generate toxic gasses, explode or produce other hazardous conditions. Examples include explosives, cyanide-containing waste, materials prone to violent reactions (such as unstable chemicals), and some pharmaceuticals.
  • Toxicity: Waste is classified as toxic if it contains substances harmful to human health or the environment at concentrations above specified regulatory levels. Toxic substances may include heavy metals (such as lead, mercury and cadmium), pesticides, certain organic compounds and other hazardous constituents. Toxicity is typically determined through specific laboratory tests measuring the concentration of these substances.

To be considered hazardous under RCRA, waste must exhibit one or more of these characteristics or be specifically listed as hazardous. Hazardous waste regulations are in place to ensure proper handling, treatment, storage, transportation and disposal of these materials to prevent harm to human health and the environment. 


Industries generating hazardous waste are required to manage and dispose of it following strict guidelines to minimize risks and environmental impact.

How To Ensure Proper Solid Waste Disposal


Whether the waste you generate is hazardous or non hazardous, proper solid waste disposal is crucial for several reasons, including:

  • Environmental protection
  • Public health and safety
  • Resource conservation
  • Regulatory compliance and sustainability

Implementing effective waste management strategies begins with partnering with a disposal company well-versed in handling various types of solid waste. Here’s why this partnership is crucial and what it can offer:

  • Expertise in Different Waste Types: A disposal company experienced in managing diverse waste streams understands the complexities of different waste categories, including hazardous, industrial, municipal and specialized areas like electronic or medical waste disposal. Their expertise allows for proper identification, handling, treatment and disposal of specific waste types according to regulatory standards.
  • Compliance with Regulations: Waste disposal companies knowledgeable in waste management regulations ensure that disposal methods adhere to local, state and federal laws. They possess the necessary permits, licenses and expertise to handle and transport different types of waste in compliance with environmental regulations, reducing the risk of legal issues or penalties for improper disposal practices.
  • Safe Handling and Transport: Proper handling and transportation of solid waste are critical to prevent environmental contamination and ensure public safety. A reputable disposal company employs trained personnel, utilizes appropriate equipment and follows established protocols for safe handling, packaging, labeling and transportation of different waste materials.
  • Environmentally-Responsible Disposal Methods: Partnering with a disposal company that prioritizes environmentally-responsible disposal methods is crucial. They may offer various disposal options, including recycling, composting, incineration or landfilling, and strive to minimize environmental impact while maximizing resource recovery through sustainable practices.
  • Customized Waste Management Solutions: A proficient waste disposal company can tailor waste management solutions to meet specific needs. They can provide guidance on waste reduction strategies, recycling programs, waste audits and comprehensive waste management plans designed to optimize efficiency while minimizing costs and environmental impact.
  • Continuous Support and Consultation: Establishing a partnership with a knowledgeable waste disposal company ensures ongoing support and consultation. They can offer guidance on waste segregation, regulatory changes, best practices and innovative technologies for waste management, fostering a long-term commitment to sustainable waste disposal practices.

The right partner for your company facilitates the safe, efficient and environmentally-conscious handling and disposal of solid waste, contributing to a cleaner and healthier environment for all.

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