Pollution vs waste

Determining what is pollution vs waste can be somewhat confusing, however there are ways to look at each and distinguish easily between the two. First, a quick look at the definitions:[1][2]

  • Pollution: the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or item that has harmful or poisonous effects.
  • Waste: material that is not wanted; the unusable remains or byproducts of a process.

From the definitions above, waste is fairly general, with no negative connotation. Waste is anything that is a byproduct of a process, whether it is good or bad. For example, a byproduct of hydrocarbon combustion is carbon dioxide which is attributed to the greenhouse effect and global warming - clearly a negative example of waste. On the other hand, oxygen is a waste product of photosynthesis, and humans and animals require it to breathe - clearly a positive example of waste.

Now to compare this to pollution. There are various types of pollution, yet none of them can be classified as having a positive effect. This is because pollution is defined as being harmful, which is the first difference between pollution and waste. Since not all waste is harmful, not all waste is pollution. Some waste is indeed harmful and would then be classified as pollution, however not all waste is necessarily pollution. Another example where waste is not pollution is a family upgrading their television: their old TV is technically waste to them, however to another family it may be desired (one's trash is often another's treasure).

Also, just like waste is not always pollution, pollution is not always waste. In other words, pollution is not always unusable or a byproduct of something, and can often be preventable. An example of this would be with the evaporation of volatile organic compounds from pumping gasoline into a vehicle. Volatile organic compounds are a type of pollutant, and they are most definitely not a waste product in this case: they are usable, they are not a byproduct of any process, and they are indeed wanted in order to provide energy to the vehicle.

In summary:

  • Pollution is always harmful
  • Waste is not always harmful, but it often times can be, especially when disposed of improperly
  • Pollution does not always arise from unusable substances, therefore it is often preventable

So next time you are about to dispose of something as "waste", ask yourself: "is this also pollution?" If so, think about alternatives such as proper disposal methods like putting it in the trash rather than littering, using compost or recycling, or even reusing it.


  1. Google definitions. (Accessed July 29, 2015). Available: https://www.google.ca/search?q=pollution+definition&oq=pol&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.588j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8
  2. Google definitions. (Accessed July 29, 2015). Available: https://www.google.ca/search?q=pollution+definition&oq=pol&aqs=chrome.0.0j69i57j0l4.588j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=122&ie=UTF-8#q=waste+definition

Authors and Editors

Jordan Hanania, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev