The secret to sustainability is long-term thinking.
~ Patty Limerick
The rocks were slippery and the icy cold water was rushing quickly past, so I was quite careful as I reached out to retrieve what turned out to be a baggie caught in a riverside eddy. I used my hiking pole to skewer the bag and drag it up to where I could grab it.
Hiking along the South Platte River in the mountains, I frequently have to drag some kind of trash out of the river. As a volunteer trail patroller, it is one of my duties to pick up any garbage along the trail. Usually it is gum or granola bar wrappers, small pieces of mountain bikes, tissues, and tons of unidentifiable debris. And, lots of bags containing dog poop.
We all know that people are trashy. We litter, both knowingly and inadvertently, and mostly just don’t think about the trash at all. When we do think, we dispose of it properly in trash cans, and take those out weekly for the trash guys to pick up. No real thought to what we’re doing with it in the long term. Out of sight, out of mind.
However, our bad littering habits are piling up in some pretty weird places. Mount Everest has been called the world’s highest garbage dump. The Washington Post reported, “The two standard routes, the Northeast Ridge and the Southeast Ridge, are not only dangerously crowded but also disgustingly polluted, with garbage leaking out of the glaciers and pyramids of human excrement befouling the high camps,” according to mountaineer Mark Jenkins in a 2013 National Geographic article.
As anyone who has ever been to the lakeside or ocean shore knows, lots of trash ends up there, where it is known as beach litter or tidewrack. This human refuse causes more than just aesthetic problems, though, as it can impede natural processes and entangle or injure marine life. Recently, Saltwater Brewery has begun using biodegradable, edible six-pack rings to address problems with them in the ocean.
Floating oceanic debris also accumulates at the center of ocean gyres, the vast circular whirlpools in the center of our oceans. Scientists have identified and named most of these, including the Indian Ocean Garbage Patch, the North Atlantic Garbage Patch and the Pacific Trash Vortex (marine landfills?). These areas contain exceptionally high relative concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge and other debris. Some of this trash begins the journey on land and washes downstream with storm flows, ultimately finding its way to the oceans.
While direct waste disposal into the oceans is no longer condoned, huge amounts of materials are discarded at sea, and items like fishing line and nets are lost routinely. In the movie, All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s sailboat is rammed by a half-sunken cargo container full of sneakers that was lost off a massive container ship. (Oh well, isn’t that what insurance is for?)
It should come as no surprise that we’re junking up space as well as the Earth. We have been leaving space trash, both space debris (small pieces) and space junk (intact satellites) up there ever since we entered space in the 1950’s.
The sheer volume of material in orbit around the Earth is phenomenal. Small pieces number in the hundreds of millions, and numbers gradually decline for bigger pieces to the tens of thousands. The largest pieces number nearly twenty thousand, including over a thousand operational satellites. While the small pieces cause erosion of surfaces or punctures in solar panels and delicate parts, larger pieces include whole satellites past their useful lives, whose orbits may take decades to decay.
Materials in near-Earth orbits may gradually move to lower orbits and burn up as they enter the atmosphere, often decades after they cease operation. Some obsolete satellites have been pushed into orbits further out into space, where their orbits will never decay. Plotting space travel these days requires knowing what junk is out there, where it is, how it’s moving and what protections the craft needs to push through the trash belt. Efforts are underway to develop guidelines for space trash, but there is no enforcement mechanism now. (In space, no one can hear you dump your trash.)
Natalie Panek described space junk situation as similar to how it would be if every time your car ran out of gas or broke down, you just left it in the road. Soon, the road would become impassible. To me, it’s kind of like swimming in an algae-infested pond. We always swam with a breast-stroke, using our hands to push a clear path through the slime out to the open water, being very careful to keep our heads high. You can do it, and on a particularly hot day, even the dirty water is refreshing.
However, you wouldn’t want to have to swim that way all the time. We need to think ahead to the future and what messes we’re leaving for the people that come along later to deal with.
And by the way, I’m glad I’m not a patroller on Mount Everest.
Additional reading and video:
Peter Holley, Decades of human waste have made Mount Everest a ‘fecal time bomb’, The Washington Post, March 3, 2015
Natalie Panek, Let’s Clean Up Space Junk Orbiting Earth, TedTalks, 12/16
Saltwater Brewery, “Edible Six Pack Rings”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YG9gUJMGyw