Population health and waste management

Scientific data and available options

The evidence of adverse health effects related to landfills and incinerators, although not conclusive, adds to other environmental concerns in directing waste management strategic choices towards reduction of waste production, re-use and recycling schemes, as prescribed by European Union (EU) directives.

National and local authorities should oppose and eliminate poor, outdated and illegal practices of waste disposal that still affect some local communities, support regulation and enforcement, and invest in state-of-the-art technology for lowering emissions. The decision-making process on the location and operation of waste facilities should be transparent and fair.

Actions to address population concerns, such as the following, should be considered and adopted where necessary:

  • providing information on technological standards and process characteristics and environmental mitigation strategies (resources should also be concentrated on establishing the real level of risk associated with sites, including improved understanding of exposure pathways, before considering site-specific epidemiological research);
  • providing information on environmental monitoring;
  • developing monitoring programmes where applicable; and
  • enhancing communication and participatory activities to promote community autonomy and build consensus.


Waste management is becoming an increasingly complex matter in many European countries. Improvements in technology and recycling schemes are often not sufficient to counter growing waste production, obsolescence of existing waste management facilities and shortage of space for the construction of new facilities. Further difficulties are posed, in many instances, by mounting public concerns on effects on health and well-being.

Controversy and consequent difficulties in developing and adopting health-friendly, cost-effective and equitable policies in waste management are due to several reasons, including: abundance of suggestive, but not conclusive, evidence on possible adverse health effects of living near waste treatment plants, landfills, incinerators etc; confusion between different issues such as the disposal of solid urban waste as opposed to other types of waste (e.g. toxic industrial waste, hospital waste); mistrust in authorities and scientific community; occurrence of the NIMBY (not in my back yard) reaction, possibly as a result of overlooking aspects of risk perception and communication.