We Are Trashing Our Universe

Trash, like sex, death, and taxes, is inevitable. From the time that Eve first took a bite of the apple and casually tossed the core into a clump of bushes, this universe of ours has been accumulating refuse, litter, junk, the unwanted, the discarded, the used and the unusable. For all of this time, trash was mainly a nuisance, what the dog got into if the garbage can lid wasn’t tight enough, what made you hold your nose driving past the dump.

Now, suddenly, trash is a big problem, encompassing not just the personal garbage of our daily lives — milk jugs, cereal boxes, food, and sewage — but the rapidly proliferating, increasingly lethal debris of a war-prone, heedless, technological society, from industrial waste chemicals to deadly radioactive nuclear sludge. It’s so large a problem, in fact, that with all our wealth and technical know-how, scientists have grave doubts that we can ever solve the problems of disposing of this “new garbage” that threatens to foul this planet beyond the possibility of clean-up.

Waste Not Want Not

In the process of garbaging civilization, the average American has demonstrated the credentials of a champion. Recent studies show that each and every American produces about 6 pounds of solid waste per day. This figure is based on both the garbage discarded from the home and the refuse generated by industry in order to supply products for our consumer society. In all, 220 million tons of solid waste are generated in one year in this country by the total population and the industry that serves it. This tonnage includes something on the staggering order of 55 billion cans, 26 million glass bottles, 30 million tons of paper, seven million automobiles and 100 million tires.

If this Himalaya of refuse is not great enough to stagger the mind into disbelief, you can also figure on an additional 2000 million tons of waste left over by agriculture, and another 1100 million tons kicked up by mining and mineral work.

As the nature of home life has changed in America, so has trash. When the Puritans held their Thanksgiving supper, they used the turkey feathers for home decorations, writing implements, and embellishments for their hats. They fed the bones to the dogs, fed the melon rinds to the deer, and used the leftover pumpkin pulp to fertilize the next year’s vegetables. They never envisioned a country where one day every hamburger, hot dog, and frozen popsicle would be served up in a special package and it would be common to find roast turkey (with cranberries to boot) encased in an aluminum envelope as a frozen dinner.

Our industrial society is, of course, a major reason for the change in the nature of trash. Water pollution, for example, has now become a lethal danger, and responsibility for this clearly lies at the feet of industry and agriculture for dumping poisonous chemicals on our land and in our streams and rivers. To cite just one instance, mercury dumped into the Alabama River ultimately produced huge graveyards of dead fish along the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. People had once freely fished the coastal waters for crab, shrimp, and mackerel, then had to check for mercury levels to see if the fish was edible. Similar problems have afflicted the Hudson River in the Northeast, where factories in New Jersey and New York dumped mercury and the poisonous compound PCB into the water. Air pollution is another current menace. Most U.S. cities issue air-quality indices daily, but chemical trash has been the most publicized horror.

No Love in Love Canal

In early August of 1978, residents of a town near Niagara Falls started a final exodus from their chemical-ridden community. Named, in sad irony, Love Canal, the town was being plagued by a lode of chemicals burried beneath the community for over 30 years. From the 1930’s, the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation had begun to place their discarded chemicals in metal drums and sink them deep into the Love Canal soil. In 1953, the Niagara Falls board of education took over the dump, filled it, and built a school and allowed housing developments to cover the area. In the 1970’s, after heavy rains flushed the chemicals from the drums — 82 different ones have been identified — the trees in Love Canal began to wither, animals developed sores and lesions, and, tragically, the number of human birth defects rose disproportionately fast.

The first exodus from the Love Canal was of pregnant women and mothers with infants under the age of two. They carried signs with complaints like: Wanted: Safe Home for Two Toddlers and Today Is the Day They Give Babies Away with Half-A-Pound of Tea. At town meetings in Niagara Falls, irate fathers demanded to know what would happen to their wives and children. The wives shouted out the ages of their children and the stages of their pregnancy to public officials to see if they would have to be moved. A warehouse foreman, Robert M. Huryn, displayed the anxiety and concern for his wife common to many: “I’m not allowing her back here even to pack her belongings. I stand to lose everything if the bank and the Veterans Administration take the house. I’m scared for my family.” One resident, Karen Schroeder, when asked if she would ever move back to Love Canal if the chemicals were cleaned up, replied: “No-there’d be no value to our homes. Besides, the chemicals are in the wood and in the pores of cement. It would still be contaminated.”

What Lives in Your Own Back Yard?

Sometimes the chemicals are not as easy to pinpoint as in the Love Canal incident. Rather than being isolated in steel drums beneath the earth, they are emitted from materials and products. Investigative reports showed the hazards created by dioxin, a spin-off chemical of certain pesticides. Residents of one community in Oregon speculated that the number of miscarriages had risen in their home area after the dioxin-carrying pesticide had been sprayed. Another example of industry related chemical poisoning is carbon tetrachloride, used in the recent past as an integral part of the dry-cleaning process. A carcinogen, carbon tetrachloride is said to be detectable on the breath of those who inhale it for over a year. And trisphosphate, a chemical used as a flame retardant in children’s pajamas, was recently taken off the market after it, too, was suspected of being a carcinogen. And no one can forget the most recent instance of this in Flint, Michigan with the high level of iron due to the corrosive mess that is the Flint River.

Chemical trash in the form of unfiltered industrial smoke has afflicted thousands, perhaps millions, of workers with pleurisy or tuberculosis. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, the absence of any regulatory laws prohibiting dumping of materials into rivers created hazards as severe as those today. Chemical trash has simply become updated in its sinister dimensions — harder to locate, to control, to define.

The most potentially most dangerous form of trash is radioactive waste. In places like Richland, Washington, Aiken, S.C., and Idaho Falls, nuclear waste is stored in underground steel tanks holding 75 million gallons. The waste is in the form of a sludge left over from the reprocessing of spent fuels. In 1973, over 100,000 gallons of this nuclear waste spilled from the steel tanks and seeped into the Washington earth, and the level of radioactivity in the area went up dangerously.

Another danger from nuclear waste involved the reactors themselves.There are currently 100 commercial reactors and at least 15 of these have become dangerous or obsolete. Even the clothes that nuclear workers wear present a problem. After they are discarded, they will continue to be dangerously radioactive.

Despite all the safeguards the government and the nuclear industry claim to have erected, the havoc that can be caused by nuclear materials has already been demonstrated. Consider, for example, the situation at the Nuclear Fuel Services Plant near West Valley, N.Y. The plant was used for reprocessing spent fuel. The radioactivity of the plant was so high that some employees worked for only five minute periods a day for a full eight hours pay,

One of these workers, Gerald Brown, worked a “hot job” for less than three months in 1972. Reportedly, the radiation levels he received did not exceed Federal guidelines. Nevertheless, he and his wife have given birth to two sons suffering from the rare Hurler’s Syndrome — a terminal disease in which the body becomes dwarfish and grotesque. It is hard to prove the accusation that the nuclear plant caused this genetic horror. There is much speculation, however, that the radiation level did act as some kind of catalyst in the birth defect.

Investigation showed that careless and shoddy management has caused over 400 other instances of technical and health problems. For example, a worker whose hair had become contaminated with radiation was told to get it cut outside the plant. No thought was given to the danger this haircut would pose to the barber and others in his shop. In many other instances, contaminated workers spread their radioactivity to household items in the neighborhood which later had to be confiscated — in the hope that whatever harm already done was minimal.

If, as we’ve seen, civilization has done its best to mess up the planet Earth, and some of its heavens to boot, what’s been done to clean it up?

As the amount of refuse generated by the average family has gone up because of greater per-capita consumption and a greater percentage of dry rubbish, it has become more practical to incinerate rubbish. The water and ash content, found in food waste, has gone down in proportion to the paper and plastic. Paper and plastic have a higher calorific content than food waste when burned. Some experts estimate that the heat value of a pound of rubbish today is half that of a pound of bituminous coal.

A Brighter Future?

Since Earth Day in Spring of 1970, notable strides have been made in the effort to recycle waste. The “garbage as fuel” movement has found enthusiastic reception in a number of large American cities. In Milwaukee, for instance, 1200 tons of garbage a day are sent into a whirring maze of grinders, shredders, blowers, and separators. Sixty per cent is squeezed out as an odorless, fluffy substance used by the Wisconsin Electric Power Company in one of their coal-fired electrical generating plants. About a fifth of the original garbage mass turning up is reusable metals or glass; the glass is smashed into the consistency of gravel and goes into the city asphalt. The remaining waste is sent to a landfill where it is either buried or kept until somebody requests it as burnable fuel.

The space program has provided alternatives to disposing of household waste. To deal with bodily wastes and garbage generated on long space-flights, NASA has developed some efficient, though expensive, ways of handling refuse and sewage. Under the direction of the Langley Research Center at NASA, General Electric developed a system to process the daily liquid and non-metallic solid wastes of a family of four. According to a technical report in the December 1975 issue of Space World, “the system consists of an evaporator to separate liquids from solids, an incinerator to reduce the volume of the solids, and a catalytic oxidizer to eliminate noxious gases generated during the evaporation and incineration process.” Ultimately, the system burns the solid wastes, reducing them to ash, provides for the recovery of water, and processes any latent energy that might be generated. NASA estimates the space unit could be used for domestic purposes, selling as a complete unit for the somewhat hefty price of $2000.

Chemical wastes are harder to deal with than household refuse. As in the case of the Love Canal incident, encasement and burial is of questionable efficiency and safety.

The real responsibility for dealing with chemical waste must, by necessity, fall on the industries which profit from use of the chemicals. In 1977, a Toxic Substances Control Act was passed by the Federal Government which mandates corporations to supply Washington with the likely effects chemicals will on humans. The Environmental Protection Agency has the right to ban or limit the use of chemicals which present serious health hazards to the populace. If acts such as this one and the Clean Air Act are enforced stringently by the U.S. government, industry will move quickly to research new ways of disposing of air and water pollutants, and the chemicals they too often spread haphazardly beneath the communities of America.

A Nuclear Problem

The most serious problem in waste disposal comes with the so-called energy of the future — nuclear energy. Radioactive waste lingers for centuries, if not eons, and contamination is passed on from one generation to the next.

An effort has been made to deal with the initial waste from nuclear reactors by recycling part of it as fuel for other reactors. The way this plan works is simple in concept and yet difficult in practice. Uranium, mined predominantly from America’s Southwest, is turned to uranium hexafluoride, a gas, and then becomes the U-235 isotope at the reactor site. This isotope is then changed from the gaseous state into uranium dioxide, a dark gray substance. The uranium dioxide is placed into the fuel rods for the nuclear reactor. After a few years, when the fuel rods are spent, the uranium dioxide and rods are usually disposed of by keeping them submerged in water.

When the fuel is recycled, however, the unused uranium and the plutonium-239, a man-made substance, are extracted before disposing of the rods. Experts estimate that this recycling of uranium can stretch America’s supply of this element by 20 to 35 per cent.

There is still a huge mass of residual sludge that has to be dealt with, however. In addition, as was demonstrated in the West Valley reprocessing plant debacle, it is not safe, as yet, to recycle all of the uranium and plutonium left in the spent rods.

One presumably ideal way to dispose of nuclear waste is to solidify the sludge, package it in concrete, and bury it deep in the earth. It is estimated that it will take from $2 to $20 billion to develop this method fully, and then, as previous spills of unsolidified sludge have shown, we will still not have a completely foolproof method. As far as the dismantling of reactors,the problem is equally difficult.

As of this year, approximately 12 per cent of America’s energy comes from nuclear power. If this percentage is to increase, significant strides must be made in nuclear waste disposal. Is there a possibility of rocketing our nuclear junk into the greatest atomic reactor in our solar system — the sun?

Indeed, scientists have begun to speculate on the various ways to jettison radioactive waste out of our world and into another. Essential to this plan would be a procedure for rocket launching that would reduce accident possibilities to nil. An explosion on the takeoff pad could set us back to the day Eve first took a bite of the apple and chucked the core onto the ground.

What’s Next?

The year is now 2044. If, when you read this in 2016, you were 30 years old, you are now 62. Perhaps you live in a large urban area. Chances are you are sitting on a chair made from metals recycled from last year’s trash. You look outdoors and see the asphalt street and reflect that it, too, is made from materials salvaged from refuse. Perhaps you are reading a book printed on recycled paper. This afternoon, you read in the news, there will be a rocket launching to get rid of another load of nuclear waste. Suddenly, there is a noisy rumble outdoors. Oh hell, it’s the garbage craft! You peer out the window and see helmeted astronauts bouncing around in their “flubber” work boots, dumping your boxes of compressed refuse into their polyethylene sacks. From the end of the block, one of the garbage workers yells out to his co-workers, and they all bound over to the capsule. They toss their bags into the back of the craft, and the missile lifts off with yesterday’s rained-out picnic lunch squashed into its compressors.

Damn, you say to yourself as it swims neatly into outer space, lugging your refuse with it. Why oh why, you think, as you watch it sail into the Great Trash Dump of the Sky, can’t they make a noiseless garbage missile?

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