The Politics of Solid Waste Management


Virginians produce over 9.5 million tons of solid wastes every year. Solid waste management is a classic study of federalism. Federal, state, and local laws and ordinances have a multitude of requirements that apply to the disposal of solid wastes. In this activity, students discuss the basic facts about solid waste management in the Commonwealth, simulate the roles of their local government, and decide where a new landfill will be placed in their community.


Day 1

Activity 1

Open the activity by distributing Handout #1: Waste Management Quiz.

After the students finish the quiz, use Handout #1A: Solid Waste Management Quiz Answers to go over the answers with them. The answer sheet also provides a brief explanation for each question and websites to provide additional information for the teacher or students.

Activity 2

Have the students read Handout #2: Solid Waste Management in Virginia: What Choices Do We Have in 2009? 

Discuss the basic facts about solid waste management using Handout #3: Basic Waste Management Fact Sheet with the students. During the discussion, emphasize the roles of the local government in deciding a great deal of our waste management policy.

Activity 3

Distribute Handout #4: What Choices Do We Have? A High School Class Simulation and Handout #5: Leemack County Simulation Map.  Have students read the simulation individually or as a class.

Assign the students in the class to play the roles. You will need one student for each member of the Board of Supervisors. The rest of the students will play the other roles of citizens who have very strong and particular views about where the new landfill will be placed. Every student should have to present their views to the Board. In most local board and council meetings, citizens are limited to two or three minutes to present their opinions and make a statement to the Board.

For homework, based on the role they will play, have each student prepare a short two-minute statement on where they think the new landfill should or should not be located.

Day 2

Activity 4

Prepare the room for the simulation by placing five desks at the front of the class facing the other students, and position a podium from which the students may speak to the board.

The teacher should serve as the county administrator.

At the start of the simulation, the teacher should read the brief introduction about the purpose of the meeting and the issue on which the board will be voting. Then the administrator (teacher) should call upon the students to come to the podium and address the board.

The teacher may also want to use a stopwatch to help the students stay within their time limit when they make a presentation.

When all of the presentations have been completed, the administrator will ask each member to vote and to explain why they decided to put the landfill in the site named. The chairperson will vote last.

It will take a minimum of three votes of the five members to select the new site.

After the vote, ask the students if they would agree or disagree with the board’s decision. What role did politics, business, and citizen participation play in the decision?

Group Discussion

Following the simulation, conclude the lesson by discussing the following questions as a class:

  1. What site was chosen? Why did each supervisor choose the site he or she voted for?
  2. What were the major gains and the major losses in choosing the site?
  3. What do you think the long- and short-term effects of this decision will be?
  4. What role did politics play in this action?
  5. How is this NIMBY situation a political issue as well as an environmental one?
  6. What personal and political pressures were expressed during the session?


This lesson can be used by students of any academic level. Keep the lesson at its basics for general students. Higher level students may want to do additional background research on the other venues available for the disposal of waste. This could include the formation of regional landfill authorities, and the transporting of waste to other localities.

This lesson is ideal for interdisciplinary work with the science department. The science teachers can review the scientific problems and challenges in our solid waste, and then the government classes can use the information to make better informed decisions.

Resources for this activity: