Introduction

Section
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
Page
10.1

Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing ‘Under a White Sky’1 (see 10.9) begins with a boat trip down the much-abused Chicago River in the USA. ‘Down’ doesn’t have much meaning here; just what is ‘upstream’, or ‘downstream’ on this poor river is a moot point, as it has been changed and re-directed almost beyond recognition. Perhaps worse than the engineering works, it has been used for little more than a waste and sewer pipe for much of its recent history, draining everything toxic and foul from the urban and industrial areas of Chicago into Lake Michigan. The problem with this obnoxious flow was that the city also drew its water supply from the lake, and right next to the river’s outlet. In classic modern-day displacement, the ‘solution’ was not to fix the pollution, but to move the intake well out into the lake, away from the effluent. Even this didn’t work as the effluent flow became so great as to affect the distant intake, so in a repeat of the established thought process, the solution was to reverse the flow of the river, away from the lake and across the divide and inland into the Mississippi Basin, where other people and Nature could deal with its contents. To finalise the indignity, part of the river was renamed the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Chicago History Museum. 1911. Man standing on floating island of encrusted sewage, Bubbly Creek, Chicago. Bubbly Creek is a tributary of the Chicago River and was so named for all the bubbles of methane that rose from its depths, generated by rotting carcasses from the adjacent slaughterhouse, world’s largest2).

This example could, and sadly, can, be repeated for almost any place in the world. The Thames of London was so fouled with pollution in the 19th century that Parliament was obstructed by the stench and the summer of 1858 became known as ‘The Great Stink’.

(Punch. 1858. Cartoon of ‘The Great Stink’ on the Thames, London).

To be fair, both these river systems have had much-improved status in more recent times, with concerted efforts to ‘clean them up’, pollutants stopped or stored, and restoration commenced. The Chicago River, for instance, now even has a ‘friends’ group, and the story of its degradation, and later, restoration, can be followed here:  The History of the Chicago River | The Chicago River Tour with Geoffrey Baer | WTTW Chicago .

 

 

In this section, ‘pollution’ and ‘wastes’ will be used interchangeably, and they can be characterised by their point of origin – ‘point-source’ or ‘diffuse’- or their state – solid, liquid, gas, or energy. Whatever system is used it makes little difference to the difficulty of encapsulating such a blinding array of molecules and materials, and from every human activity. Despite this challenge, T10 will try to present at least some examples from the three broad groups of wastes: gas, liquid, and solid.

T10 has emphasised the importance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics a number of times (see 8.4) and it needs to be reiterated that it establishes that, as energy is transferred or transformed (‘used’), more and more of it is wasted. Entropy increases and less is available to us for ‘work’, products, food, etc…In other words, we can reduce the ‘waste’, but cannot eliminate it. This was of little importance when there were few of us with low-level technology and energy sources and limited consumption – Nature could assimilate our wastes. But, as our numbers and powers grew, the volume and toxicity of wastes increased and great urban centres, such as Ancient Rome, began to overload Nature and foul their surrounds, such as the Tiber River in Rome.

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and climate change in 10.3, climate change effects in 10.4 (especially fire), and suggested climate change solutions in 10.5. Solid, mostly domestic ‘rubbish’ will be covered in 10.6, the intriguing story of plastics and marine pollution in 10.7, and the human face of waste disposal in 10.8. 10.9 looks at technical solutions to the problems that wastes present, and 10.10 at broader-based approaches to solving the problem.

 

1 Kolbert, E. Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Crown, New York, USA.

2 Baer, G. 2022. The Chicago River Tour. https://interactive.wttw.com/chicago-river-tour/history-chicago-river

Explore Other Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10.1 Introduction

Elizabeth Kolbert’s absorbing ‘Under a White Sky’1 (see 10.9) begins with a boat trip down the much-abused Chicago River in the USA. ‘Down’ doesn’t have much meaning here; just what is ‘upstream’, or ‘downstream’ on this poor river is a...

10.2 Pollution: Status and Context

“Industrialization, use of pesticides and nitrogen-based fertilizers, crop residues in agriculture, urbanization, forest fires, desert dust, and inadequate waste management have intensified environmental health risks and pollution, especially in l...

10.3 Greenhouse Gas Pollution and Climate Change

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is unequivocal in its identification of the tight and close relationship between anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and global warming; and from this spins forth a whole r...

10.4 Climate Change and Fire

In Section 7 and elsewhere in T10 I have talked about fire and its profound impact upon the natural world (e.g. see 7.6). The use of fire deliberately and directly to clear or alter habitat has been discussed, as well as its egregious use as a too...

10.5 Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation

Previously in T10 I have discussed solutions to the various problems thrown up in each section at the end of that section, but as climate change is being treated in Section 10 as a special case, with webpages 10.3 and 10.4 devoted to it, I thought...

10.6 Solid Waste: domestic

Moving from gaseous wastes/pollution, to solid wastes, I covered in webpage 6.7 the television program ‘War on Waste’ and commended it for covering this important, but ‘unsexy’, topic in an interesting and engaging way for the general public; it w...

10.7 Solid Waste: oceanic

This strange odyssey certainly has some of the rambling eccentricities of the more famous ‘Moby Dick’, but the similarities end there as this is a modern tale of plastics pollution in the ocean and one man’s quest to find the story behind thousand...

10.8 The Human Dimension

‘Waste’, ‘rubbish’, ‘trash’, are, sometimes literally, the ‘shitty’ side of the shiny consumption dream, the grubby end of the capitalist process that no one wants to recognise. Similarly, we don’t want to know the people who have to deal with our...

10.9 Waste Solutions: technological

In some ways technology is its own greatest enemy. Its very quickness, its shiny cleverness, its neat problem-solution dynamic is irresistible. It has solved, and at least can, ‘solve’, or contribute to, solutions to a whole range of world environ...

10.10 Solutions: other

Feeling a little flat about all things environment, the other week I was lucky enough to visit a nearby seaside town, Robe, and call in on Brad and Narelle at their little ‘factory’ out the back of town, called Transmutation. It has to be said tha...

Explore Other Sections

1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship 1.1 Articles 1.2 Art Installations 1.3 Books 1.4 Buildings 1.5 Film, Documentaries, Podcasts 1.6 Music 1.7 Paintings 1.8 Photographs 1.9 Poems 1.10 Spiritual Responses
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1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship

This section is designed to foster appreciation and insight that will – hopefully – lead to novel ways to build a better relationship between human beings and Nature. This section is also atypical ...
2. Reduce Consumption
2. Reduce Consumption

2. Reduce Consumption

I hope Reneé Descartes would forgive us for saying that, at least for the modern world, he was wrong.  When, in 1637, he said: “I think, therefore I am”, he could not have anticipated that the majo...
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality
3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

3. Replace God of Growth with God of Quality

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4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

What we do in our day-to-day lives can have great impact. Section Four divides up these actions into three groups – Work (4.2 & 4.3), Volunteering (4.4), and Action, e.g. voting, protesting, et...
5. Reduce Population
5. Reduce Population

5. Reduce Population

Even on top of Mt. Everest, in one of the remotest, most difficult places on earth, there is a great traffic-jam of people jostling for position. And yet, ever more vociferously, we deny that overp...
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context

The media is one of the three, great ‘poles’ of power in the world (alongside political and corporate power) and how they frame and present ‘the environment’ has a profound effect on how we respond...
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species
7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

7. Stop Further Loss of Natural Habitat and Species

New York is an exciting, mesmerising place. Human culture is extraordinary and often wonderful. Our powers of transformation of the natural world seem limitless. The trouble is, we don’t seem to be...
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition
8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

8. Assist Energy Descent and Transition

Our current energy largesse is an extraordinary ‘gift’, an unprecedented gift of the ages; millions of years to produce and from millions of years ago. Coal, oil and gas, forming...
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems
9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

9. Support New, Environmentally-Aware, Economic Systems

Just as with the previous section – ‘Energy’ – which is, inescapably, all about fossil fuels so pre-eminent and extraordinary has been their dominance and transformation of the world in the last 20...
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation
10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

10. Reduce Wastes to the Rate of Natural Assimilation

Section 10 will attempt to organise this enormous topic by addressing the context and status of pollution in 10.2, before focussing in on air pollution; particularly greenhouse gas pollution and cl...