Today is Earth Day, and the environmental movement is turning 39 years old. What began as a grassroots campaign to put the interests of planet Earth on the national agenda in America has grown into a global cause with deep, sprawling roots in ecology, advocacy, sustainability, and of course, politics. But at its most fundamental, today is about a wholly unavoidable aspect of life on Earth: waste.
Every biological organism has a pressing need to consume in order to stay alive, but conservation laws require a balanced equation: Consumption will result in waste. Or trash, litter or garbage -- what you call it isn't as important as where you put it: in streets, streams, habitats, the atmosphere, and sometimes in places it might even belong, such as landfills.
But landfills aren't merely incidental and oversize trash heaps; just the opposite. Landfills are complex engineering projects that require a number of years and a few million dollars to see to fruition. Even when they get that far, they're not the most environmentally friendly solution to the problem.
On that cheerful note, let's celebrate Earth Day by looking at five things you didn't know about garbage.
1- Garbage has its own patch in the Pacific OceanThe first thing you didn't know about garbage is a nasty thing to think about: In one region of the Pacific, the discarded plastic garbage bobbing around is so prevalent that it outweighs the surface zooplankton population by a factor of 6 to 1, according to a study by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF). This region is foully referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which happens to sound like the title of the most cynical Charlie Brown special of all time.
At any rate, the AMRF believes that the whole world's oceans may contain as much as 100 million tons of plastic debris.
2- Garbage is all over Mount EverestYou would never know it by looking at the majestic, snow-white contours of the world's highest peak, but the people who spend time there are colossal slobs.
The well-trodden but challenging paths up the mountain are notoriously filthy; the most frequently encountered bit of garbage is a discarded oxygen tank, but over the years climbers have been known to discard plenty of other gear on the mountain as well.
If garbage-strewn paths weren't bad enough to spoil your leisurely hike 29,000 feet up, another frequent site will: dead people. A handful of climbers have reluctantly defied the old maxim about what goes up must come down, dying in a deep freeze at elevations too high to be retrieved safely.
3- Some garbage can live a million years or moreAnother thing you didn't know about garbage is just how determined some of it is to stay garbage. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that glass bottles require a million years to fully break down in a landfill; that plastic foam cups require over 500 years; aluminum cans between 200 and 500 years; plastic bags as many as 20 years, and cigarette butts as many as five years.
We're not sure how the EPA arrived at the figure for glass, but here's a plausible theory: In 1939, archeologists found some Homo Erectus fossils in Indonesia that dated back one million years. Is it possible that among the bones they found an empty with an expiration date?
4- Landfill garbage pollutes the air worse than carbon dioxideHere's a sensible tip: Don't ever live near a landfill. You would be better off camping out around Chernobyl and eating the soil. Landfills have a tendency to emit a host of toxic gases into the air, and by toxic gases we actually mean cytotoxic or carcinogenic gases, like benzene and vinyl chloride. They also leak into the surrounding soils and water sources.
Furthermore, landfills produce methane -- rather, microbes produce it as they devour anything they can and emit methane as a waste product. Being lighter than air, methane works its way out of the air and into the soils or the atmosphere. Methane has a very high global warming potential (GWP), about 12 times as high as carbon dioxide.
5- Garbage and plasma could feed the gridThe last thing you didn't know about garbage is something Dr. Louis J. Circeo at the Georgia Tech Research Institute knows everything about: using plasma to obliterate garbage.
Plasma is a set of charged particles interacting with a magnetic field, and it is hotter than the surface of the sun. At a plasma arc gasification plant, plasma is put into contact with organic material, and -- poof! -- burns it into synthetic gas that's much cleaner than other burning processes. Inorganic material melts into useful construction materials.
Plasma gasification is extremely efficient; according to Dr. Circeo, incinerating your run-of-the-mill ton of landfill garbage could provide the power grid with over 800 kilowatt-hours of electricity -- several times the power needed to carry out the plasma gasification in the first place.