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3. Waste Treatment and Disposal

How will we reduce and handle waste and provide a healthy environment for all? The geoscience community provides the knowledge, experience and ingenuity to meet society's demands for natural resources, environmental quality and resilience from hazards. Here we outline the critical waste treatment and disposal needs of the nation and the world at the outset of the twenty first century and provide policy guidance to grow the economy while sustaining the Earth system.

What Is The Need?
What Are The Policy Recommendations?
Additional Resources
What Is The Need?

Each year the nation requires more waste treatment and disposal. Wastewater, sewage, contaminated water, nuclear waste, landfills, brown fields, superfund sites, recyclable waste and non-biodegradable waste must be managed with great care. Long term planning is needed to prevent toxic build-ups, additional contamination, re-use as a biologic or nuclear weapons and leaks of hazardous materials (for example, either sudden risks, such as explosions or imperceptible, long-onset risks, such as disease-causing contaminants that build-up in the environment over decades).

The challenge is to efficiently and securely treat and dispose of the waste with a minimum impact on ecosystems and human health. Tracking mercury, originating from air pollutants to toxic methyl mercury in our food chain (Figure 4) is a good example of the data and understanding required to deal with the complexities of waste transport in the Earth system. All waste treatment and disposal solutions require geological, geochemical, geophysical, hydrological and biological expertise to determine the sources of waste, how the waste is transported, altered and/or concentrated in natural and man-made systems and what methods may be most effective in remediation or recycling waste for humans and the ecosystems we depend on. Waste can be a resource with some knowledge of the waste make up and a bit of ingenuity, waste products can be used effectively. For example, coal ash could be mined for precious metals and there are many forms of waste-to-energy plants.


Figure 4: The U.S. Geological  Survey is developing a mercury sensitivity map for the contiguous 48 states. The higher scores represent more sensitive ecosystems and the data are based on more than 55,000 water-quality sites and 2500 watershed measurements. Mercury pollution, primarily from power plants, accumulates in fish as methylmercury. Methylmercury is toxic for people and fish-eating wildlife. More details are available from

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What Are The Policy Recommendations?

Waste: Given the need to deal with waste of all kind and to recycle where feasible, the geoscience community suggests the following national policy directions.

  • Provide incentives to support greater use of recycled materials, including reclaimed water, to reduce waste build-up and conserve resources.
  • Build a database of “waste resources”, places where economically valuable materials and services can be harnessed from waste streams. 
  • Invest in upgraded and advanced water/waste water treatment infrastructure.
  • Invest more in wastewater R&D, which is often overlooked and is segmented among different federal agencies. Integrated and comprehensive support now will provide enormous economic and environmental benefits.
  • Initiate a national re-assessment of nuclear waste and future plans. Consider in particular revisions to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 based on current and future waste needs and advances in technologies.
  • Invest in nuclear energy/nuclear waste R&D with an appropriate fraction of the resources directed toward training of skilled professionals for the nuclear industry and outreach/education for the public.
  • Support clean-up of abandoned mines, brown fields and superfund sites as a high priority; set priorities for what should be cleaned up first given that there are not enough funds to initiate clean-up at all sites concurrently.
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Additional Resources
Links to supplementary or updated information.

Full Report (PDF)

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With a burgeoning human population, rising demand for natural resources and a changing climate, it is critical to more fully integrate Earth observations and Earth system understanding into actions for a sustainable world.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted on July 7, 2009; Last Updated on July 8, 2009


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