Will we eventually have to send our trash into space if we run out of room on Earth? Aiden, age 13, Maryland Heights, Mo.
Our planet holds a lot of trash. Since the Industrial Revolution, we humans have produced 30 trillion tons of stuff – from skyscrapers and bridges to clothes and plastic bags. Much of it is still with us in the form of waste.
Globally, people add 350 million tons to this total every day. What’s worse, much of the world’s garbage is mismanaged – dumped on land, in waterways and in open dumps in cities and towns. This exposes people to serious health risks. It harms plants and soil, and a lot of waste finds its way into the oceans. Thinking about what a mess we’re making can be pretty overwhelming.
Waste in space?
Sending trash into space isn’t as off the wall as it might sound. After all, there’s a lot of room out there, with no one – as far as we know today – to claim it.
Some researchers have suggested sending waste into space. They’re mainly thinking about used radioactive fuel rods from nuclear power plants. It’s true that nuclear waste will remain extremely hazardous for tens of thousands of years, and humans have done a lousy job so far of disposing of it safely on Earth.
These proposals, though, have never moved forward, for many reasons. One is the risk: What if a rocket carrying tons of highly radioactive waste exploded on takeoff? Another is the cost, which would be vastly higher than the already high price of storing it safely on Earth.
There is also a lot of “space junk” already orbiting the planet, including broken satellites and meteor debris. NASA estimates there are over half a million pieces the size of a marble or larger in Earth’s orbit. They travel at high speeds, so they can really damage spacecraft in a collision. It wouldn’t be smart to add to this problem.
Here’s a much better strategy: Reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills, incinerators, open dumps on land and the oceans. Part of that job is up to governments, which set rules on issues like whether to allow single-use plastic bags. But there are many things people can do to reduce waste in their daily lives.
You might be familiar with the “3 Rs of trash”: reduce, reuse, recycle. Each step means less waste at the end of the day.
If you want to reduce waste in your life, choose reusable mugs, cutlery or grocery bags instead of single-use plastic items. Many towns and cities have made this the rule.
Some communities also collect organic wastes, like food scraps and yard trimmings, and turn them into compost – a soil-like material that gardeners and landscapers use as fertilizer. And many gardeners do their own composting at home.
You can reuse by buying secondhand goods and clothes and donating your unwanted but still usable stuff. Freecycle networks make it easy to give away usable items that you don’t need and get different goods in return.
Recycling paper, plastics, glass and aluminum keeps them out of landfills. It also helps to slow climate change, since it can take less energy to make new products from recycled materials. In 2018, nearly one-third of municipal solid waste in the U.S. was either recycled or composted.
Some items, like plastic bags and straws, can be hard to recycle. But aluminum cans, paper, cardboard and certain kinds of plastic are successfully recycled at much higher rates. Knowing what can be recycled where you live, and how to do it, is important – the rules vary a lot from place to place.
There’s growing discussion about the right to repair – giving consumers access to information and parts so they can repair their own goods, from electronics to cars. Companies would rather have you buy new replacements, but many people are pushing for rules that make it easier to fix your own stuff.
There are many options for reducing waste before space is the only place left to put it. Once you try some, you’ll find it’s easier than you think.
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Kate O’Neill does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.