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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.

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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.