EPA Tools Help Local Decision-Makers Deal with Waste Resulting from Major Natural Disasters
Published February 12, 2019
Hurricanes with damaging winds and heavy rains often leave destruction in their wake. Following a natural disaster, communities face another challenge—what to do with all that contaminated floodwater and millions of tons of waste and debris left behind.
Waste management poses unique challenges for emergency responders and state, tribal, and local officials who are responsible for restoring affected areas following a disaster. To help manage waste after disasters, EPA researchers and partners developed a suite of tools, which includes the Incident Waste Assessment & Tonnage Estimator (I-WASTE) and the Municipal Solid Waste Decision Support Tool (MSW DST). These web-based (I-WASTE) and downloadable (MSW DST) tools can assist in appropriate strategies for both urban and rural waste management planning and emergency response.
I-WASTE can be used to locate disposal sites and provide rapid access to information that supports decision making associated with waste and disaster debris management from a variety of incidents ranging from natural disasters to chemical, biological, and radiological contamination incidents.
During Hurricane Florence in September 2018, I-WASTE was used to determine potential types and amounts of waste in the affected communities, as well as to create a map that identified waste management facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. This map of waste facility locations was then overlaid with potential flood maps to assess which waste management facilities would likely be impacted by the storm and therefore, not viable places to take the debris. This helped local communities plan where they would transport the waste and identify alternative locations if their primary landfills were flooded or impacted. Communities were able to plan their waste and debris management strategies before the storm hit so that they could recover more quickly.
I-WASTE is intended to guide users on what to consider during the decision-making process. Equipping decision makers with large amounts of information condensed in an easy-to-use format can streamline activities and better facilitate disposal decisions throughout the life cycle of an incident.
Recovering and recycling some of waste left behind after a natural disaster-- including building debris and vegetation (such as downed trees and plants or leaves)— can help communities with overall waste reduction and materials management. That’s why EPA developed the Municipal Solid Waste Decision Support Tool that complements I-WASTE. This tool calculates the economic and environmental tradeoffs of residential and commercial waste management options to clarify where greater environmental and economic benefit is made through resource and energy recovery.
EPA conducted a recent study for the city of Norfolk, VA using the MSW DST and I-WASTE to understand the impact of extreme weather events on solid waste infrastructure and develop more resilient and sustainable waste management plans. Flooding events can inundate and damage infrastructure, including waste facilities and their operation. Researchers generated maps to illustrate the boundaries for different levels of flooding and its impacts on local infrastructure. Extreme flooding scenario analyses identified potential vulnerabilities based on facility location or history of flooding. Alternatives were identified through use of the MSW DST to reduce current vulnerabilities in support of more resilient solid waste management. The MSW DST can also be used to calculate diversion from landfill, energy requirements, emissions, and energy recovery from waste and landfill gas combustion. An optimization feature allows the tool to select the best performing management strategy given the specific objectives of a user, accounting for their existing infrastructure, waste composition, and the type of community, whether it is rural, urban, or suburban. For these reasons, the tool is valuable to decision makers to develop more strategic, resilient, and sustainable materials management.
Waste should be considered early in the emergency planning process. Determining how much waste, what kinds of waste, where the waste will be staged, and where it will be disposed of, or recycled, is all part of the planning process and can determine how quickly a community returns to normal following a natural or man-made disaster.