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10 Good, Bad, Ugly Stories About Garbage

Alun is a freethinking moderate on political and philosophical issues of general interest; some of his views can be found in his articles.

What a Load of Rubbish!

This is a rubbish page! 10 true stories about garbage, human wastefulness, and some solutions to the problems of disposing of all the waste produced by an ever-expanding human population on Planet Earth. The facts are chosen for their interest value. Some will raise the eyebrows, and several may repel and create a sense of despair at the lack of respect which has been shown by our species for the environment we have to live in. But other stories offer a message of hope, about what we as humans can do to redress the balance and conquer the garbage. And as well as the present and the future, we'll also look at the ancient history of garbage.

My intention is to keep this page reasonably light. 'Garbage' if you're American, or 'rubbish' if you're English—where would we be without it? Well, probably on a desert island or at the South Pole, because there are not many other places one might expect to be free of the stuff today. It's everywhere, and despite the messages of hope, it's unlikely in our lifetime we'll ever know what it's like to live without garbage or rubbish.

Note: The first two sections deal with the general history of garbage—necessary, I think, to emphasise the impact mankind has had on the world. But if you just wish to read some interesting stories about individual cases of garbage, skip to number 3.

1. Pre-Industrial Garbage

In the beginning, there wasn't any problem. When our ancestors lived in caves and hunted and gathered their food, communities were way too small to produce much waste, and our stone axes, animal skins, bone needles and other possessions were natural. And if things ever did get too much, well, our nomadic ancestors followed the herds or travelled with the seasons to find pastures new, and by the time they returned, Nature would have run its course. The garbage would be gone.

Things began to change with the development of agriculture. Farming required people to stay on the land for all the time it took the crops to grow. Permanence of settlement and growing our own food led to larger social communities developing in a relatively small area. A corresponding increase in waste occurred, and the absence of human migration meant that that waste accumulated. Still the problem was limited, and remained so for many millennia, because the world population was still small and all our products remained bio-degradable.

As cities and towns developed, so waste also developed. One of the first landfill sites in history seems to have been established about 5,000 years ago in Knossos, Crete. Large holes were dug in the ground, waste was deposited, and the hole was filled in. It seems not much has changed in that regard, except that now the holes are not always filled in! Then in Athens 2,500 years ago, it was decreed that waste should be dumped at least a mile away from the city to make the living environment more pleasant. And in the Roman Empire people were employed to collect waste and cart it off away from human habitation. All societies developed their own solutions. Across the pond in Central America, the Maya had a monthly gathering of garbage to be communally burned. But still almost all waste apart from stonework and metal, was rapidly bio-degradable. And all things that didn't rapidly break down, were reused. Recycling of pottery, wood ash, and notably scrap metal, all had important roles during these times when mining and crafting the raw resources might have been difficult or expensive. People made as much use of everything that they could, whatever its condition—it remained that way throughout history

Step forward a thousand plus years to the Middle Ages, and little further progress had been made in the field of sanitation. Indeed, intense crowding and build-up of human waste in the cities of the time contributed to an environment conducive to the spread of pestilences such as the Black Death which wiped out 50% of Europe's population. And in addition to epidemics, war and famine were frequent and life was short. On the bright side, natural and/or bio-degradable products—stone, cloth, straw, wood etc—were still the norm, so at least there were no mounds of plastic bottles and discarded diapers to contend with—be thankful for small mercies.

The Middle Ages may have been a real low point, but conditions over the next few centuries would remain essentially the same. People lived side by side with human waste, (which was a negative) but people did recycle nearly everything until the goods literally fell apart (which was a positive). Consumables were reconsumables, and—sorry if this sounds like a well-worn record—everything was bio-degradable.

Then came the Industrial Revolution . . .

Ancient monument, modern trash

Ancient monument, modern trash

2. Post-Industrial Rubbish

The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the early 19th centuries in Western Europe and America brought extraordinary changes to our society. The changes can only be very briefly mentioned here, but they were far reaching and still have implications for the world of today. Industrialisation and innovation brought important new materials and new products to the world. And population growth and the greater affluence associated with the revolution afforded immeasurable benefits and many new opportunities.

But the changes in our society which continued post-industrial revolution through the 19th and 20th centuries, also brought negative effects. The greater density of populations in the burgeoning cities, the demands for better standards of living and hence more consumerism, the rise of the factories and the enhanced efficiency and productivity of manufacturing processes—all of these have over the past 200 years led to detrimental environmental effects—chemical pollutants (which are not the subject of this page) and solid waste (which is).

Old materials such as metal and paper have found extraordinary new uses and new products have been created from them at an accelerating pace. Metal food cans, first introduced at the turn of the 19th century, were an obvious early bonus of industrial innovation, and metal found its way into so many of the great inventions of the past two centuries - new modes of transport - trains, cars and planes - the telephone, the television and more recently the computer and electronic goods. Paper likewise has increased in production multifold, for traditional purposes such as printing, and for new functions, such as packaging. The first cardboard box was invented in 1817.

And entirely new materials have been invented, most significantly plastic. The first commercial plastic, Parkesine, was invented in 1856, and developed and registered 14 years later as 'celluloid', replacing traditional materials such as wood, ivory and metal in many household products. The following decades saw the development of many more plastics such as 'cellophane' in 1912, and 'polystyrene' and 'polyvinyl chloride' (PVC) in 1930. Five years later, 'plexiglass' was developed, and two years later, 'nylon was patented. 'Polyethylene' appeared in 1957, and 'polypropylene' was introduced in 1980. These are just a few of the many kinds of plastic which have found their way into bottles, cups and other containers for drink, carrier bags, glass and rubber substitutes, mouldings and so much more—a great boon to our way of life. But almost all are resistant to natural processes of decomposition.

Not only were new products being created, but they were being created with ever increasing efficiency. New industrial mass-production methods, including automated conveyor belt technology, allowed goods to be produced in a tiny fraction of the time that it would have taken in past times. What's more, the main costs were labour and development rather than raw materials - once developed, it was easy and cheap for the factories to keep churning out more of the same in ever greater quantities. And we became ever more happy to throw old things away. Specialist craftwork abilities became increasingly obsolete, and as a result the scraps and worn out goods which would once have been reused or recycled by the thrifty, were discarded, and readily replaced with new. The Western world became a throwaway society, and the rest of the world has since followed suit.

And even more so today, when consumerism has become almost eccentrically extravagant. Today millions of tons of food which is perfectly edible is thrown away each year. Up to a third of vegetables and fruit doesn't even reach the supermarket shelves because it is the wrong shape! In the UK alone, up to 500 million plastic bags are used each week. In the USA, 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown out each year. It is said the average American produces over 60 tons of waste in his lifetime—much of it non-bio-degradable. And in this modern era, 50 million tons of electronic waste is binned every year.

The Slow Turn of the Tide

But even at the same time in the 19th century as Western society was becoming ever more profligate, and ever more shortsighted as to the future we were creating, so the more enlightened were beginning to worry. Nobody likes living in a sewer, and it was sewer-like conditions which first led to concerns for our environment. In the 19th century, the big industrial cities were often vile, stench-filled slums. Excrement, food waste and other garbage was just dumped in the street. Dead animals were often left to rot in the streets. Many commentators bemoaned the state of our cities, and the first concerns were raised about the effect on our health and quality of life.

To combat the problem, cities one by one introduced their own clean-up laws. In 1866, for example, New York City passed legislation forbidding the 'throwing of dead animals, garbage or ashes into the streets'. The garbage had to go somewhere more appropriate, and the solution was dumps away from the city, and incineration of waste. In Nottingham, England, organised burning of trash first began in 1874. The first garbage incinerator in America opened in 1885, and over the next 20 years nearly 200 more were built. By 1900 the majority of American cities had begun to purposefully remove garbage, and soon land was even being reclaimed from wetlands to be used for dumps. (Ironically, land which many humans considered to be 'wasteland' was now being filled with genuine waste!) Dumps or landfill sites became the mainstay of garbage 'disposal' in many countries, but even in these early days, the proximity of such places to human habitation were an affront to several of our senses, and more environmentally sound alternatives were being proposed.

Recycling had always been a part of our behaviour—a mentality at times lost after the Industrial Revolution. But physical conditions in the cities, periods of shortage and rationing (notably during war) and increasing environmental awareness, all led to growing concerns about getting maximum usage out of our products. In 1897, the first recycling centre was established in New York, with garbage sorted according to its potential for reuse. The big advances however have come in the past 50 years. The growing environmental movement, recognition of a need to conserve energy, and political legislation, have greatly increased interest in the recycling of materials including plastics, at least in the developed world.

Unfortunately, however, we do all still seem to be swimming against the tide of garbage, and the rest of the stories in this article relate individual examples, some depressing, some almost comic, and our efforts on the small scale and the grand scale to turn this tide.

3. The Palmetum of Tenerife

Let's not pretend otherwise, the last two centuries, the breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, the rise of modern consumer society and the development of non-bio-degradable materials like plastics and electronic goods has been a major boon to the comforts of human life in the 20th and 21st century. We wouldn't be without these benefits. But this page is about garbage, and the downsides of this 'progress'—the never-ending build up of trash, and the legacy of this for the generations to come. And solutions have to be found to this problem. And there are some shining examples of these solutions. The Palmetum of Tenerife is one model of just what can be achieved.

Tenerife is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, a subtropical resort island in the Canary Archaepelago. Attractive beaches, a relaxed, tourist-orientated lifestyle, and one of the most equable climates in the world, brings holiday-makers in their droves from the continent of Europe. The capital is Santa Cruz, and it should be an additional draw for the tourists. But monumental garbage tips can ruin the appearance of any city, and 30 years ago, Santa Cruz was experiencing the problem of a hill-sized eyesore of trash called El Lazareto—not the sort of site or sight to enhance the island's image, or to attract the tourists to the capital. So in 1983, El Lazareto was closed down and an ambitious project embarked upon to develop this artificial hill into a great botanical and public garden.

The hill stood 42 metres (138 ft) high, and the difficulties of reclaiming this garbage tip were huge, and set-backs were encountered in raising funds for the task. Not least among the problems was the toxic nature of much of the waste. Nonetheless, work went ahead under the guidence of a few dedicated conservationists, botanists and politicians, and gradually the development took shape. The result in 2015 is a pleasant grassy haven for locals to walk around and for tourists to visit. And it's a great educational resource too. The 55,000 m2 top of the hill, and a further 65,000 m2 on the slopes of the hill are now home to several thousand plant species. Most of all the Palmetum—as the name suggests—is home to palm trees. More than 400 types now grow here—reputed to be the largest collection in the whole of Europe.

Today, walking around the Palmetum it is impossible to imagine what was here just 30 years ago, and what still lies just a few metres below the surface. The author of this article visited in March 2014, shortly after the new botanical gardens opened to the public. At the time I was totally unaware of its history, and the later revelation that this was a waste tip inspired me to write an article about the site 'Tenerife: The Santa Cruz Palmetum', and also added great inspiration to the writing of this page.

4. Fresh Kills in New York City

The Palmetum in Santa Cruz, Tenerife is an example of what can be done. A very much bigger project is currently underway in New York City.

Fresh Kills is a 2,200 acre landfill of construction debris, household, and commercial waste on Staten Island. Or it was. The dump was opened in 1948, and in its early days was one of several such landfills servicing the city. Gradually, however, most of the other smaller sites were phased out of existence either for economic reasons or to meet the increasingly stringent environmental standards. Fresh Kills, on the other hand, just grew and grew. At its peak, trucks were unloading 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. As much as 50,000 tons of garbage entered here daily, and by the mid-1980s, the dump was handling 90% of the city's waste.

And the result of this? At one time four giant mounds of garbage nearly 60 m or 200 ft high (taller than the Statue of Liberty) were present on Staten Island—monuments to extravagant wastefulness. And Fresh Kills was accorded a dubious entry in the Guiness Book of Records as the largest municipal landfill site in the world—ever! Indeed, even more than that, the site was said to be visible from space and - in so much as one can call a mound of garbage a structure—then this landfill has been described as the largest man-made structure on Earth. Which is kind of interesting!

It was projected that if nothing was done to alleviate the situation, then the mounds of garbage would eventually more than double in height to become the highest points—excluding skyscrapers—on the Eastern seaboard. Fresh Kills continued to serve as the key dumping ground for the city for a further 15 years, but from the 1980s, some of the pressure was increasingly eased by redistributing garbage by barge, road and rail to other sites along the coast and inland, including to landfill sites in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Eventually, it was decided that something much more permanent had to be done, because Fresh Kills had become a major environmental embarressment for the State, not least because toxic chemicals and heavy metals were now leaching out into the surrounding waters. On 22nd March 2001, the dump was finally closed.

What was to become of the site? A new and huge 3,000 acre green space—two and a half times the size of Central Park—is currently under development. It will be 30 years from the time of closure before the process is complete, but when this is done, Fresh Kills will feature some educational and recreational buildings, sports facilities, and a marina, but also parkland and areas for nature—woodlands, wetlands and open water. It is projected to become a new set of lungs for the city.

Fresh Kills is named after the Fresh Kills Estuary, and the unfortunate 'Kills' part actually derives from the Dutch word 'kille' or 'riverbed'. Hopefully in the future, the 'Fresh' part of the name will have more of an accurate resonance about it.

5. The Pacific Trash Vortex

If you think that Fresh Kills is big, well it doesn't even hold a candle to the biggest dump of them all. Not a landfill site, but a waterfill site—a vast pile of rubbish which is rapidly filling up the northern Pacific.

Variously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex, this is not an official dumping ground, but rather the consequence of natural ocean currents and eddies and surface winds, which have acted upon the massive increase in non-biodegradable materials—namely plastics—in recent decades. Roughly half of all discarded plastic does not end up in landfills but rather finds its way via streams, rivers and sewers into the oceans of the world. Much then sinks to the ocean floor, but a significant fraction floats, and the nature of ocean eddies tends to draw this trash into a circular current or gyre, where it accumulates. The development of such a swirling patch of garbage in the North Pacific was first postulated as long ago as the 1980s, but its actual existence was only discovered in 1997 by a yachtsman sailing home to America from a competition in Hawaii.

Most of the material in the gyre is not as clearly visible as one might imagine. The trash consists largely of such things as plastic bottles and carrier bags and styrofoam containers, and although the plastic doesn't bio-degrade, it does 'photo-degrade'—that is, exposure to sunlight breaks it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Hence much of the plastic is particulate and microscopic, and floating beneath the surface. On the one hand this makes it less of an eyesore—on the other hand, the pollution threat is less obvious and less likely to be taken seriously. It's also why most people have never heard of it. But particulate plastics can absorb waterborne toxins and when ingested by marine life, notably filter feeders, can enter the food chain and create problems which are not yet fully investigated. Certainly millions of birds, mammals and of course fish die each year from such pollutants, and the long term effects on humans who are at the top of most food chains these days, is not known.

How big is it? No one seems quite sure, but it is growing. Some say it has doubled in size in just a decade, and now covers an area between 135-155°W and 35-45°N which is more than six times larger than the United Kingdom. This may however be a conservative estimate. One oceanographer claims the garbage is spread over an area the size of the continent of North America!

What's more the northern Pacific Vortex isn't unique - it's merely the largest of its kind. Similar swirling accumulations of plastic and other trash are now clogging up regions of the South Pacific, as well as the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The solution is far from clear. Some have suggested a major 'sweeping up' operation in the ocean, whilst others say the only long term solution is to drastically reduce the amount of plastic used by our societies. But whilst progress has been made by some developed nations in reducing plastic usage, it seems that the Pacific Trash Vortex and other ocean garbage patches are only going to grow in the foreseeable future, but with unforeseeable consequences for all of us.

A map of the North Pacific showing the swirling currents which produce the vortex of garbage between California and Japan

A map of the North Pacific showing the swirling currents which produce the vortex of garbage between California and Japan

6. Thilafushi: The Paradise Island Made of Garbage

Staying with the ocean theme but transfering now from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, we look at the idyll that is the Maldives.

The Maldives are everybody's idea of Paradise—the place you might choose if you had to be shipwrecked on a desert island somewhere on Earth. This archipelago of 26 coral reefs or atolls, comprises more than 1000 individual islands. And mere mention of any of these conjures up an image of clear blue skies, colourful reef fish, and palm-fringed beaches of white sand.

Any of these islands, that is, except one. Thilafushi is not the one to be shipwrecked on, much less the one to choose for your annual exotic beach vacation. You'd be better off visiting your local sewer—at least then you'd be able to return home at night for a shower and a comfy bed.

Most of the Maldivan islands are uninhabited, but the archipelago as a whole is home to more than 300,000 people, of which 100,000 live in the densely populated capital, Malé. Add to this, the annual influx of more than 700,000 tourists, and even Paradise produces a huge amount of waste. But there are special problems for this nation, and for Malé in particular, in dealing with this waste. Space is at a premium and the small island location means that there is simply nowhere to put garbage. The need to do something led to a unique solution. If there was no space for a dump, then why not build some space - an artificial island of garbage. Thus was Thilafushi created from land reclaimed from a shallow channel close to the island of Gulhi Falhu and about 5 km west of Malé.

The decision was taken on 5th December 1991, and just one month later, the first load of garbage was delivered. From its earliest days as a new island, several hundred tons of rubbish arrived every 24 hours on Thilafushi, dumped in large piles. Each ton of rubbish helped to build up Thilafushi and as a result the island expanded in size by a square metre every day. The increase paved the way for even more garbage to be dumped here, and also allowed for other enterprises to be established. Landfill became only a part of Thilafushi's economic function as warehousing, boat building, cement manufacture and methane gas bottling moved in. Malé's port is now also sited here. But it was garbage which made Thilafushi, and which controversially still dominates what is sometimes known as 'Rubbish Island'. Particularly worrying given the Maldives' tropical idyllic setting, has been the dumping of toxic waste such as old batteries, asbestos, and lead and other metals. Briefly in 2011, operations were suspended due to an increase in pollutants drifting out to sea from Thilafushi—an occurance blamed on 'impatient boat captains' prematurely dumping their waste.

Thilafushi today has become a fetid, smoke enveloped eyesore of a rubbish tip, picked over daily by migrant workers who separate out the garbage into different categories, and burn what can be burned. No tourists visit Thilafushi, but billions of flies enjoy this island more than any other in the Maldives.

7. The Great Adventure of the Khian Sea Cargo of Garbage

And now the story of one of the most extraordinary of all garbage-related incidents in history—a serious tale which nonetheless has the potential to be made into an epic comic adventure starring the crew of a ship which went on a world tour just in an attempt to unload some garbage.

On 31st August 1986, the cargo ship Khian Sea set sail from the east coast of America laden with 14,850 tons of incinerator ash from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The intention was to unload the waste in the Bahamas where the ship's operators had a base, but this intention was scuppered on the ship's arrival, by the islands' refusal to take it. Briefly the ship returned to the USA so as to decide what to do next, but the nature of the contract was that the ship's owners would not be paid until the ash was disposed of. So off the Khian Sea went on a world-wide voyage to find a safe dumping ground. The ship first sailed to Puerto Rico and then to Bermuda, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Guinea Bissau and the Dutch Antilles. All were visited, and all refused to take the ash. The crew of the Khian Sea did then manage to drop some of their cargo in the country of Haiti—but only about 4,000 tons, a fraction of the total—and only on the understanding of the government that this was merely topsoil fertiliser. When the truth came out, Haiti asked for the ash to be removed, but by then the Khian Sea had already sailed on to new destinations.

The ship had returned to America and sailed up the Delaware River in an attempt to bring the rest of the unwanted ash back to Philadelphia, but the authorities there for some unaccountable reason didn't want their garbage back. So next the ship headed off in turn to Senegal, Cape Verde, Morocco, Yugoslavia (for ship maintenance), Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines, and each in turn said 'No!'. During their round the world trip, the ship was sold once, and changed its registration once. The then owners also twice changed the name first to Felicia, and then to Pelicano. But these changes of name did not change its fortunes. Still the ship and its cargo seemed unwanted across the whole wide world.

Eventually the ash did disappear in 1988—dumped at various places into the Indian and Atlantic Oceans before the ship arrived in Singapore in November 1988. This was an offence which later led to the conviction of two of the owners of the Khian Sea. The ship had covered tens of thousands of miles and visited five continents in two years in its efforts to unload this one single cargo of garbage.

So that was it. Well, not quite. What of the 4000 tons originally dumped in Haiti? Haiti had long since decided it couldn't handle this waste, and made various unsuccessful attempts to return it to America. But America wasn't willing to take it, so the ash remained in Haiti for years, and became international news when the environmental group Greenpeace, politicized it. Then in 1997 New York awarded a contract to the original handlers of the ash, Joseph Paolino and Sons, to operate in that city—on condition that they first deal with the embarrassing controversy of the Haitian waste. A lobby - 'Project Return to Sender' - was set up to raise funds and in April 2000, 2,500 tons of the Haitian ash was loaded on to a barge and taken to Florida. There it remained docked for two more years! In June 2002, finally cleared of possessing any hazardous materials whatsoever, it was taken on to Mountain View Reclamation Landfill, in Franklin County, Pennsylvania.

16 years after it had first set sail, the ash had returned home to Pennsylvania!

The Khian Sea

The Khian Sea

8. Sweden

Next, a whole country with an entry all of its own—the nation of Sweden.

Now don't worry, Swedes everywhere, lest you think I am going to dump your wonderful civilised country into the same garbage truck as Thilafushi and the Pacific Trash Vortex. I'm not. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth! Sweden is here as a first rate example of what can be done where there's a will, and a well organised society. The interesting story here is that Sweden actually IMPORTS garbage from other countries because it doesn't create enough of its own! Bizarre? Read on.

Sweden is one of the most proficient recycling nations on Earth. Back in 1975, 38% of household waste in Sweden was going into landfill sites, but today, less than 1% is dealt with that way. All the rest is either burned in incinerators or recycled - which is a stunning achievement in prudent management of their resources. The benefits for the nation are considerable - incineration of waste creates heat for nearly a million homes in Sweden today. But the authorities aren't content with that. Even better than providing energy through incineration is reuse through recycling, so the focus is on increasing this method of waste management. Households routinely separate off paper, glass, plastics, metals, elecrtronic discards and batteries for collection. Food waste is also collected in many localities for composting. And Sweden is looking at doing even more, with campaigns to reduce food wastage and the amount of toxins in industrial production. Heavy metal emissions have already been reduced by 99% since 1985.They are also looking at ways to encourage production of goods which have a longer working life. The work they are doing is uplifting and multifaceted, and as an example of all, should be read at this official website.

It must be said that several other European nations - Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria for example - also put minimal amounts of waste into landfill site, putting the USA (and regretably also my own country, the UK) to shame. But Sweden's efficiency in making good use of its incineration and recycling plants has actually led to one unexpected problem. The fuel from incineration plants provides electricity to a very significant number of households, but with increased recycling there are diminishing amounts of garbage left to feed the incinerators. Basically they are using more trash than they produce, and they need to import garbage just to keep the fuel supply going! As a result, 700,000 tons of refuse are imported each year - huge amounts arrive just from neighbouring Norway, paid for by Norway! And with Norway themselves also being a relatively clean nation, the Swedes are now looking to import rubbish from elsewhere, notably several East European countries like Rumania, Bulgaria and the Baltic nations where landfill sites are overstocked and recycling plants are in short supply. Rumania is an example of how not to recycle - in Sweden less than 1% of waste goes into landfills, in Rumania, 99% goes this way.

Bottle recycling is a part of life in Sweden.

Bottle recycling is a part of life in Sweden.

9. Garbage as Art

Sweden apart, what can be done with the evergrowing pile of garbage in the world? Well, some serious long term solutions are required, but one rather nice, constructive method of disposing of a tiny fraction of it is to turn it into a thing of beauty. Or if not beauty, then at least a novel, intriguing work of art.

Artists are a strange lot - not content with creating a life-like representation of a subject in paint or in sculptured stone (my idea of art), some artists are forever on the lookout for new materials to work with, and new ways of interpreting old materials, including trash. And one has to agree, there can scarcely be any better way of recycling some of the world's waste.

Barbara Franc, an artist from London, makes animal models out of trash discarded in bins and skips. Starting with a wire framework and bits of scrap metal, such things as old keys, kitchen utensils, food cans and sweet wrappers are then moulded around the framework. The resultant artwork such as the zebra depicted here sells for anything from £100s to £1000s.

For some, rubbish is merely a novel and exciting material to work with. For others, the motivation is to promote a powerful environmental message in their sculptures. HA Shultz has been described as an 'eco-artist'. 'Trash People' is one of his displays - a 1,000 strong army of human figures made out of crushed food cans, soft drinks bottles and other garbage, which has been displayed in several countries around the world, and close to major monuments such as the Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. He also produced 'Save the Beach', a 'hotel' complete with bedrooms and furnishings, but with walls of trash - a protest against the state of Europe's garbage-strewn shorline.

Several design companies have also incorporated recycled rubbish in their merchandise for sale. En Piezoand Lamponi are two commercial firms who have made some really attractive ornaments and functional household objects including lamp shades, out of trash—ballpoint pens and old steam irons respectively. The use of such waste materials creates an original design, whilst making a point about the company's' eco-friendly credentials.

Whether it is individual experimental artists searching for unique materials to use in their work, conscientious artists making a political point about human wastefulness, or design companies exploiting waste to create something novel, garbage offers tremendous opportunities to people who want to make something of value out of nothing of consequence—beauty out of ugliness. What better fate for our rubbish?

10. Space Waste

I could not complete this selection of stories without mentioning something about space debris. OK, it may not be of such immediate concern to most of us as the effects of putrifying waste in landfills or non-biodegradable plastics in the oceans, but .... SPACE? We've only been up there for 70 years and already we're filling up humankind's next great neighbourhood with junk, and storing up problems for the future.

At the present time it is estimated that:

  • 3,000 tons of space debris exists in low-Earth orbit between 200 and 2000 km (125-1,250 miles) above the surface of the Earth.
  • More than 20,000 objects larger than 10cm (4") are in orbit.
  • More than 500,000 objects larger than 1 cm (0.4") are in orbit.

This junk in space consists of everything from intact bulky hardware to small bits of metal and even paint flecks. Where does it all come from, and how significant is it? Some of it was deliberately put up there, including discarded rocket stages and satellites which have ceased to operate. But most of it is the result of explosions and collisions. Explosions are not common but have occurred on occasion because of residual fuel in old rocket tanks, heated beyond a critical temperature by the Sun's rays.

But collisions are an extraordinarily serious problem, and the reason is basic physics, which tells us that energy released on collision is a function of two factors - mass and velocity. Of these, velocity is far more important, capable of generating incredible amounts of energy from even relatively small objects. Rockets and satellites frequently travel in excess of 36,000 km/h (22,000 mph), and at such speed the potential damage caused can be catastrophic. Holger Krag, head of the European Space Agency's 'Space Debris Office', has described the impact of a 1cm metal screw travelling at this speed as being like 'an exploding hand grenade', whilst the tiniest sand grain sized debris can cause damage to the vital components of spacecraft. In 1983, a space shuttle had to have a window replaced - it had been damaged by a fleck of paint from space junk. As for major collisions, two recent examples serve to illustrate the potential devastation caused. In 2007 China deliberately destroyed an old weather satellite during a military test - a stupid action which generated about 3,000 large pieces of debris and 150,000 1cm pieces. Then in February 2009, defunct Russian military satellite Kosmos 2251 collided with the solar panel of Iridium 33, an American communications satellite. Many more thousands of pieces of debris entered our space neighbourhood as a result. Recently indeed, the International Space Station (ISS) had to be manoeuvred to avoid one piece of the Kosmos 2251 debris - a piece only a few centimetres across, but still large enough to be a serious threat to the manned space station.

About 20,000 larger objects - those capable of causing catastrophic damage - are tracked routinely by NASA, and satellites regularly have to be deviated from their course to avoid being hit. Smaller objects however, are undetectable. And as the amount of space junk like this increases, the dangers increase exponentially. Any collision between two objects can lead to thousands more fragments being created. What's more, the orbits of all these fragments are deviated, increasing both the probability and the unpredictablity of future collisions, which then generate even more debris - a chain reaction.

Lest you think this is scaremongering, space authorities are taking this extremely seriously as a major threat to space exploration in the future. Measures to reduce the proliferation of space junk have been discussed at the highest level. And genuinely proposed solutions to remove existing junk range from the eminently practical to ideas verging on 'Star Wars' style sci-fi. Space nets fired to envelop debris and drag it out of orbit are one suggestion. Robotic arms to collect garbage is another. Believe it or not, both of these have already been tested under zero-gravity conditions. An induced magnetic field to slow down the velocity of debris causing its orbit to decline, has also been considered. And it's suggested by some serious scientists that the International Space Station could be armed with a laser to zap debris which lies in its way. Specialist 'hunter-killer' satellites could even be designed to target such space debris with lasers. However, the extreme costs of such measures, and the political minefield such proposals create, make it difficult to progress. One expert suggests with resignation that 'nothing much will be done until a disaster happens.'

However, if the question of space garbage is not resolved in the near future, truly serious incidents will begin to occur, and in the far future this is going to become one major headache facing mankind's need to venture out into space.

Garbage Before Mankind, Garbage Today, and Garbage Tomorrow

If we define garbage as 'worthless refuse' or 'material which no longer has value' then garbage just did not exist before mankind appeared on the scene. Nature absolutely abhors any waste, and everything before mankind appeared was recycled by the great natural processes of our planet.

The world has worked well for its lifeforms for four and a half billion years because of the efficiency of these recycling processes. Well understood systems such as the hydrological cycle, the nitrogen cycle and the carbon cycle have ensured that no vital commodities ever became exhausted across the planet as a whole. The cycles work through the complex physical and chemical interactions of atmosphere, the oceans, and the geology of Planet Earth, and the actions of organisms themselves.

Animals and plants are born, hatched or germinated, and grow to maturity. Some are killed and eaten providing nutrients to other species. Others feed and excrete and the waste products also become a source of nutrients. Everything eventually dies and is scavenged or decomposed. Scavengers and decomposers may not have the best reputation among all the life on Earth, but where would we be without them? - deep in corpses and dung. These specialist scavengers, and the myriad of soil-dwelling creatures, fungi and bacteria which break down everything that dies and turns it into nutrient to be recycled—it has been that way for as long as life has existed.

Nature's near 100% efficiency in maintaining the balance of the essential molecules and elements which make up all life and the environment that life exists in, is truly beautiful in its complexity and effectiveness. Nothing is wasted. Everything has been used and reused time after time after time, throughout the millennia.

All of which can be set against the profligate actions of mankind. When it comes to creating and disposing of garbage, we humans are rubbish. Over recent centuries, the types of garbage we've created have changed from wood ash and food waste to metals and paper to plastics and electronics. In the process, the persistence of the waste in the environment has only increased. And cheap production technology and huge population growth have given us both the means and the need to produce such stuff at an extraordinary rate. Increasingly what we produce has not been reused or recycled after wear and tear has rendered it less than perfect.

For a long time, we have all known the many problems this behaviour may bring about, but as a society we have continued to add to the garbage tonnage regardless. And the conflict continues between the desire for a bigger and more convenient consumer society with ever-cheaper goods, and our increasing recognition of the environmental problems we are storing up for ourselves.

In this article, I have described just a few of the stranger and less appetising stories of individual cases of garbage production, and some of the more positive examples of how some people are trying to deal with it. Nature doesn't produce garbage. Humans do. But let us hope a few of the stories amongst this collection of 10, demonstrate that mankind is at last learning from nature. Let us hope that we continue to learn those lessons, and that one day in the future the word 'garbage' will have as little significance for us as it did in the days before the advent of modern society.

Fungi help to clean up the natural waste of the world—where would we be without them?

Fungi help to clean up the natural waste of the world—where would we be without them?

In the Words of Gordon Lippincott

It was in 1947, that J. Gordon Lippincott, the industrialist and designer said:

'Our willingness to part with something before it is completely worn out is a phenomenon noticeable in no other society in history…It is soundly based on our economy of abundance. It must be further nurtured even though it runs contrary to one of the oldest inbred laws of humanity, the law of thrift.'

He was an intelligent man, and much of what he said is perceptive and true. But the conclusion he draws should not guide us in the years ahead. We know today that there is a clear limit to our 'economy of abundance'. It is time we showed a little more care and a little more thrift in the way we manage our resources.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2015 Greensleeves Hubs


Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on April 26, 2018:

Jason; Apologies for not replying sooner. I too like the garbage-art theme. Whilst it does not solve the global problem of mountains (and oceans) of waste, it can certainly illustrate how something worthwhile and attractive can always be created if we put our minds to it, in even the most unprepossessing of circumstances. Alun

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on September 15, 2017:

I for one like the whole upcycled garbage into art theme. At our current status, some discards are too labor intensive and expensive to sort out and recycle. But many things can be incorporated with other junk into art.

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on May 03, 2017:

Arthur Russ; Thanks for your contribution Arthur. That certainly sounds like a great initiative. Any campaign which improves the environment - and which as a sideline is economically beneficial - must be encouraged.

Arthur Russ from England on April 30, 2017:

On a positive note, Bristol, England has an ambitious target of achieving zero waste to landfill by 2020, and is on target to achieving it. As of 2016 53,000 tonnes (58,000 tons) a year, about 70% of all Bristol waste was recycled, or processed to create energy, or composted to make nutrient rich compost for growing crops.

Bristol food waste and sewage is also feed to anaerobic bacteria that produce gas as a by-product. Some of gas is now used to run a fleet of 200 Bristol buses, the rest is either fed directly into the gas national grid or burnt to produce electricity which is then fed directly into the electricity national grid; dependent on which national grid has the greater need at the time.

BioBus – The UK’s first food and poo-powered bus: - https://youtu.be/x2R_MaWFABo

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on September 26, 2016:

DreamerMeg; Thanks Meg; that's interesting. I think there's an increasing number of artists using junk in this way. It may only be a drop in the ocean, but the message they send and the example it sets is very positive, and they certainly create very novel and original artworks! Cheers, Alun

DreamerMeg from Northern Ireland on September 26, 2016:

Very interesting and informative hub. In terms of junk art, I belong to a couple of FaceBook pages where dedicated hobby welders use scrap metal junk, such as bicycle chains, bolts, old tools, etc to create art.

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on October 24, 2015:

chef-de-jour; Cheers Andrew. I appreciate your visit. It is the case that we are slowly learning, at least in the more advanced nations of the world. Trouble is I guess, the rubbish is still stockpiling in many developing nations, and pollution is sadly going to be a major problem for a long time into the future - for us, and for all creatures we share the world with. Let's hope the message of countries like Sweden spreads quicker than the garbage does! Alun

Juale Sisle; Thank you very much Juale for sharing this. Cheers, Alun

Andrew Spacey from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on October 23, 2015:

Thank you Alun, you've done a great job sifting through and compiling all the information.

It's good to know that as a species we're learning - albeit very slowly - about past mistakes when it comes to garbage. It seems that Sweden in particular, and countries in northern Europe generally, have a much clearer picture of what they need to do with their waste. They get things done! I wish other countries would follow their lead.

juale sisle on June 26, 2015:

nice very writing. thanks shared.

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on June 21, 2015:

annart; Thank you Ann. At least food waste is bio-degradable, but I do agree with you - totally profligate and immoral, given the number of starving people in the world. Sweden (and indeed all the Scandinavian countries) regularly comes out in the top ten of nations in so many polls which look at the various indicators of what makes a great country.

Much appreciated, and thanks for commenting on the tone of the article. I didn't want to be over-heavy when writing about things like plastic bottles and paper trash, and yet clearly garbage - and the wider issue of pollution - is among the most serious problems which mankind is facing today. Alun

Ann Carr from SW England on June 13, 2015:

Great research and so interesting! It's such a shame we create so much rubbish and the amount of waste food is staggering and so immoral.

Art is a great recycler; sadly it's not done enough. Sweden comes out well though! I'm not surprised. They have such good policies on all sorts of things, education for one.

A light-hearted read on a serious subject; thank you.


Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 11, 2015:

Alun, I agree with you on that reward and charity. You're very welcome.

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on June 11, 2015:

Kristen Howe; Thanks very much. I love that lamp, and I think (if there isn't one already) maybe there should be an annual award for the best work of art created out of garbage! It could perhaps be sponsored by an environmental charity such as 'Save the Earth' :) Cheers, Alun

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 11, 2015:

Alun, this was a fascinating hub from you. Like the old adage we hear so often: a man's garbage is another man's treasure. That garbage art was pretty cool, especially that lamp shade from pens. Voted up for interesting!

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on June 08, 2015:

Casey Fleming; Thank you Casey! What you say is much appreciated.

Re-longer articles, you're absolutely right. I guess I'm just conditioned these days into believing that many readers now don't have an attention span beyond that of a twitter message! I know that's not really true, but I do worry that long articles may sometimes turn off potential readers :)

Sweden, and indeed the Scandinavian countries generally, seem to have a great deal too recommend them don't they, and not just in the field of rubbish disposal. Cheers, Alun

Casey Fleming from London on June 08, 2015:

Hi there. I found some valuable information and you really dug deep into some subjects.

Longer does not mean worse, why put a limit on something that does not require one?

Sweden is a great example to follow. Discipline and creativity is what describe their ways of dealing with problems.

Greensleeves Hubs (author) from Essex, UK on June 06, 2015:

bdegiulio; Thanks so much Bill for your considered reply to this. As too often with my articles, it ended up being rather longer than I intended, and therefore much longer to plough through than I'd intended!

Even since writing this hub I have seen news reports of a trial to be conducted in 2016 to try to ease the build up of material in the ocean. In Japan a floating barrier more than a mile across is being located to actually harness the ocean currents which create the Pacfic Garbage Patch to draw junk into the barrier, from which it should be easier to collect and dispose of it. Let's hope it proves to be a successful trial. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/arti...

As for Sweden, it is remarkable how efficient they have become to the extent they have to import rubbish. Incineration of garbage can create its own problems if done carelessly, but in Sweden, all that is incinerated is filtered and non-toxic, and the energy created is put to good use. And even so, the intention is to reduce incineration and increase other methods of recycling.

As you say, ironic indeed how undeniably beneficial progress is generating all kinds of new problems for mankind. I wouldn't want to be without the benefits, but it really is time that all governments worked to ensure that we move to a position where all garbage is effectively and cleanly incinerated or otherwise recycled and reused. Very much appreciate the votes and shares Bill. Cheers, Alun

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on June 05, 2015:

Hi Alun. What an eye opening article. Clearly we have to find a solution to our trash problem. I had read about the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" years ago and this really is incredible. I'm sure most people don't even know that it exists.

It would seem that Sweden has found a way to deal with their garbage and surely the rest of the world could learn from their success. What is the alternative? This is not something that we can turn a blind eye to and ignore. It's not going away. It's ironic that all of the progress that mankind has made over the last 100+ years is largely responsible for this mess.

A great read Alun, really enjoyed this. Voted up, shared, etc.. Have a great weekend.

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