Is Earth the largest garbage dump in the Universe? I don’t know. But it’s a safe bet that Earth would be a contender were such a competition to be held. Let me explain why.
To start, just listing the types of rubbish generated by humans or the locations into which each of these is dumped is a staggering task beyond the scope of one article. Nevertheless, I will give you a reasonably comprehensive summary of the types of garbage being generated (focusing particularly on those that are less well known), the locations into which the garbage is being dumped and some indication of what is being done about it and what you can do too.
But before doing so, it is worth highlighting just why this is such a problem, prompting the United Nations Environment Programme to publish this recent report: ‘Towards a pollution-free planet’.
As noted by Baher Kamal in his commentary on this study: ‘Though some forms of pollution have been reduced as technologies and management strategies have advanced, approximately 19 million premature deaths are estimated to occur annually as a result of the way societies use natural resources and impact the environment to support production and consumption.’ See ‘Desperate Need to Halt “World’s Largest Killer” – Pollution’ and ‘Once Upon a Time a Planet… First part. Pollution, the world’s largest killer’.
And that is just the cost in human lives.
So what are the main types of pollution and where do they end up?
The garbage, otherwise labelled ‘pollution’, that we dump into our atmosphere obviously includes the waste products from our burning of fossil fuels and our farming of animals. Primarily this means carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide generated by driving motor vehicles and burning coal, oil and gas to generate electricity, and agriculture based on the exploitation of animals. This is having a devastating impact on Earth’s climate and environment with a vast array of manifestations adversely impacting all life on Earth. See, for example, ‘The World Is Burning’ and ‘The True Environmental Cost of Eating Meat’.
But these well-known pollutants are not the only garbage we dump into the atmosphere. Airline fuel pollutants from both civil and military aircraft have a shocking impact too, with significant adverse public health outcomes. Jet emissions, particularly the highly carcinogenic benzpyrene, can cause various cancers, lymphoma, leukemia, asthma, and birth defects. Jet emissions affect a 25 mile area around an airport; this means that adults, children, animals and plants are ‘crop dusted’ by toxic jet emissions for 12 miles from a runway end. ‘A typical commercial airport spews hundreds of tons of toxic pollutants into our atmosphere every day. These drift over heavily populated areas and settle onto water bodies and crops.’ Despite efforts to inform relevant authorities of the dangers in the USA, for example, they ‘continue to ignore the problem and allow aviation emissions to remain unregulated, uncontrolled and unreported’. See Aviation Justice. It is no better in other countries.
Another category of atmospheric pollutants of which you might not be aware is the particulate aerosol emitted into the atmosphere by the progressive wear of vehicle parts, especially synthetic rubber tyres, during their service life. Separately from this, however, there are also heavier pollutants from wearing vehicle tyres and parts, as well as from the wearing away of road surfaces, that accumulate temporarily on roads before being washed off into waterways where they accumulate.
While this substantial pollution and health problem has attracted little research attention, some researchers in a variety of countries have been investigating the problem.
In the USA as early as 1974, ‘tire industry scientists estimated that 600,000 metric tonnes of tire dust were released by tire wear in the U.S., or about 3 kilograms of dust released from each tire each year’. In 1994, careful measurement of air near roadways with moderate traffic ‘revealed the presence of 3800 to 6900 individual tire fragments in each cubic meter of air’ with more than 58.5% of them in the fully-breathable size range and shown to produce allergic reactions. See ‘Tire Dust’.
A study in Japan reported similar adverse environmental and health impacts. See ‘Dust Resulting from Tire Wear and the Risk of Health Hazards’.
Even worse, a study conducted in Moscow reported that the core pollutant of city air (up to 60% of hazardous matter) was the rubber of automobile tyres worn off and emitted as a small dust. The study found that the average car tyre discarded 1.6 kilograms of fine tyre dust as an aerosol during its service life while the tyre from a commercial vehicle discarded about 15 kilograms. Interestingly, passenger tyre dust emissions during the tyre’s service life significantly exceeded (by 6-7 times) emissions of particulate matters with vehicle exhaust gases.
The research also determined that ‘tyre wear dust contains more than 140 different chemicals with different toxicity but the biggest threat to human health is poly-aromatic hydrocarbons and volatile carcinogens’. The study concluded that, in the European Union: ‘Despite tightening the requirements for vehicle tyres in terms of noise emission, wet grip and rolling resistance stipulated by the UN Regulation No. 117, the problem of reduction of tyre dust and its carcinogenic substance emissions due to tyre wear remains unaddressed.’ See ‘Particulate Matter Emissions by Tyres’.
As one toxicologist has concluded: ‘Tire rubber pollution is just one of many environmental problems in which the research is lagging far behind the damage we may have done.’