The Web of Waste

dog poop And what was even more striking to me, and what I really got hung up on, was that the world inside the screen seemed to have no physical reality of its own.

~ Andrew Blum

“It was just waste. Nobody wanted it and it cost too much to recondition, so we just dumped it.” He gave me a solemn look, then looked away.

The old maintenance guy told us about the former industrial plant that was now the source of groundwater contamination for a small town. Back before the regulations — before the EPA — the solvents and oils were just too much of a problem, so they got rid of it.

Dumping waste. It’s simply a human trait to just toss anything you’re done with. Sure, sometimes we try to find other things to do with it, but we’re not willing to put much effort into it. And truthfully, in some cases, we just don’t know that it could be a problem.

It is rare that I hike a trail without encountering that ubiquitous trace of human presence — dog poop. Even people who conscientiously pick it up, often just toss the little plastic bag next to the trail. After all, “it was just waste.”

I’ve read that much of Europe has lead contamination from the early smelting operations of the Iron Age. Every archaeological site has a wealth of information in the midden: the trash heap. In a low population density setting, waste materials may not present much of a problem. But, as we get more and more people, it becomes more of a problem. Also, the levels at which some materials can cause problems has always shifted, usually to lower levels. We’ve learned that the concept of “small amounts” is always shifting.

Arsenic was the treatment for venereal disease. It cured you, but could also drive you mad or kill you. “Mad Hatters” had been exposed to mercury in the felting process and experienced behavioral changes such as irritability, low self-confidence, depression, apathy, shyness and timidity, and in some extreme cases, delirium, personality changes and memory loss. The Radium Dial painters of the early 1900’s ingested small amounts of radium — through the practice of wetting the brush on their tongue — and suffered radiation poisoning.

Hundreds of deaths and illnesses to residents and workers resulted from the mining of asbestos-contaminated vermiculite in Libby, Montana. Waste heat from power plants has been known to cause significant disruption of aquatic ecosystems. Power plant emissions have caused acid rain and mercury contamination.

There are innumerable stories of irresponsible handling and disposal of wastes that caused massive problems. Today (at least prior to the Trump administration), we have protections in place through the EPA and other federal agencies to manage chemicals and wastes properly and safely. Of course, not all chemicals or wastes are a problem and certain levels of some are biologically required or beneficial. Some bioaccumulate to dangerous levels, and some just dissipate in the environment. The hard part is finding that balance.

So, for the most part, we do a much better job today of managing our wastes. We seem to have comprehended that we live in an essentially closed system. (Of course, we receive solar energy from outside the earth, and I guess some material from the occasional comet or asteroid.) What we have is what we got (dog poop and all).

And when we use things or make things there is usually something left over. Construction projects create large amounts of waste. Cooking creates all kinds of waste materials (and sometimes leftovers that no one will eat). Mowing your lawn creates green waste that can be left on the lawn, composted or thrown into the trash to go to a landfill. People, agriculture and industry all create residues or wastes that need to be dealt with — hopefully through proper management.

One lesson I’ve learned from seeing our past practices is that even very small amounts of waste can become an issue. Some vitamins and medicines taken in excess just pass through the body and end up in our sewage, then in our streams, then in our drinking water. Plastics can degrade in the environment into nearly invisible microplastics and end up in the oceans, where they foul marine life. Second-hand cigarette smoke is thought to cause thousands of lung cancer deaths in the US annually.

It seems that most of our activities create some kind of waste, however small or benign. The waste may be something material, maybe a liquid, solid or gas, and even energy in the form of heat. Waste can be direct, like dinner left-overs, or indirect, like the dirty water and gunk from washing the plates and pots. We tout the greenness of electric cars, but most of our electricity is still generated from coal or natural gas; thus electric cars are really coal- or gas-powered. Storage batteries require the mining of all kinds of rare metals.

Here’s something that troubles me: when I create something on my computer or put something on the internet, then delete it, where do those deleted emails go? What happens to the huge document I downloaded, read electronically, then discarded? It isn’t insubstantial. It’s made up of 1’s and 0’s, or heat, or some other matter or energy. When I was done with it, I just dumped it. But where did it go?

I acknowledge that my paltry volume of written material is quite insignificant, but there are hundreds of millions of people using their computers and the internet every day. Huge amounts of information are created, viewed, then eliminated.

Having spent part of my career cleaning up wastes left by others, I understand that in some cases the amount of waste was insignificant. Most western states, like my home state Colorado, have relatively low landfill fees because we have lots of land. We have room to dump stuff rather than deal with it directly. However, we do track our landfills and the wastes that go into them, and I suspect that at some point in the future, we’ll dig them all up again.

Are there disposal sites for deleted electronic information, or are we just creating data dumps that someone will have to come along and clean up someday? Are they toxic or dangerous? Can they leak into our environment in some way?

Nikola Tesla believed that the earth contained waves of energy that we could tap into like radio waves if we just had the right receivers. Any person, anywhere on the earth could have access to unlimited power. Is it possible that all the electronic waste we generate is contaminating the earth’s natural energies? Will it leak out one day to our great distress and dismay?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Oh, and when you’re done with this post, please dispose of properly — whatever that is.

Additional information:

Andrew Blum, Discover the physical side of the internet, TEDTalks, June 2012

Nikola Tesla, My Inventions, 1919

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund Program, https://www.epa.gov/superfund

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