Standing in line for water in preparation for Hurricane Irma, I wondered how many water bottles would end up in the landfill. After this manic push to collect the recommended three gallons per person per day of incalculable outages it will be the equivalent of a mountain. Having survived Hurricane Andrew, I know recycling is the last thing on victims’ minds. Twenty-five years ago, plastic water bottles were not as ubiquitous as they are today.
We pragmatically filled empty milk jugs and added a few drops of chlorine. The Good Year Blimp’s overhead message board warned us to boil water from the faucet before drinking. We now understand the risks of refilling water–or milk bottles. Bacterial growth is a real possibility. The bottles, intended for a one-time use, are flimsy and not intended for reuse. Washing them puts soap and detergent into municipal water supplies, a whole other issue.
Forty billion plastic bottles are produced every year in the U. S. Two thirds of them end up in landfills. Those which are recycled become some other sorts of plastic, mainly polyester. The majority of beverage bottles are exported to plastic manufacturers in emerging markets to make synthetic fabrics for clothing and carpets. According to Greenpeace, six of the largest soft drink companies used a combined average of just 6.6 percent recycled plastic. This excludes Coca-Cola, which declined to share a percentage.
Six billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown out every year and only about thirty percent are recycled.
The American Chemical Council estimates the average consumer uses 166 plastic water bottles for convenience, creating unnecessary waste in landfills. This space is limited and it is nearly impossible for bottles in a landfill to biodegrade. Earth911 reports 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space is saved by every ton of plastic that is recycled.
Here in Alachua County, any plastic container is recyclable. Remove caps and lids and step on plastic to save space. I understand that gutting the wallboard in your house and piling up carpets and furniture at the curb don’t inspire one to set aside ubiquitous water bottles for recycling. But as high as those piles get, mountains of trash looming over our cities are inexorably becoming the alternative.
Technosphere. Who knew there was a term for all the junk humans have made? Every week I dutifully haul the recycle bins to the curb and place them next to my trash can. I wonder how much is actually recycled and how much trash I contribute to the landfill. Do my castoffs and disposables add up to inches? Feet?
A paper published in The Anthropocene Review this week divides “contributions” to the technosphere into categories: urban, rural, subterranean, marine and aerial. Although I am contributing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, my weekly trek to the street probably contributes more depth to the urban sphere than any of the others: cords from out of date technology, jeans with holes in the knees, the Styrofoam box with restaurant leftovers I never ate, empty Bic pens, irreparable household items…
I decided to figure out how much of the sphere I’m responsible for. According to the Review, humans have accumulated an estimated 30 trillion tons of “stuff” – enough to fit over 100 pounds worth over every square meter of the planet’s surface. I went to Worldometers to learn what the world population is currently (7,475,632,700 when I clicked on), thinking I would divide the 30 trillion tons by that figure. Trouble is, the meter is racing. I thought about all those babies being born, requiring how many disposable diapers, all growing up to fill their own recycle bins and trash cans.
It’s scary thinking about how humans of the Recent Epoch (Holocene, 11,700 YA to present) are impacting the planet with our innovative creations. The technosphere, a relatively new phenomenon in geological time is changing the planet. I fear the consequences, yet I continue to assist its evolution. “The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet – and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly.” -Professor Mark Williams, University of Leicester.
Recently the Florida House proposed $1.8 million, the Senate, $900,000 for new technologies to complement the hand removal of tires from a tire reef off Ft. Lauderdale. Removal? The announcement piqued my curiosity. I remember back in the seventies, creating artificial reefs from tires was a new, promising idea, endorsed by the Army Corp of Engineers.
It seemed like a win/win. On land, tires were ubiquitous pollutants. Creation of artificial reefs would attract game fish and be a boon to tourist-minded South Florida. It was such an easy, promising project, tire reefs were created off the northeastern United States, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along Asian and African coastlines.
Forward thirty years. Little marine life attached to the tires. When dropped, the two million tires off the Florida coast had been latched together with corrosive nylon restraints which ultimately failed. Storms tossed single tires on a collision course with natural reefs, doing great harm. Hurricanes Opal and Bonnie (1995 and 1998) strew tires across Florida’s beautiful panhandle beaches and popular North Carolina beaches.
Thus began efforts to rid the sea of tires. An experiment by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection would have allowed companies who had damaged sea beds and reefs to mitigate reef destruction by removing tires from Osborne Reef. The state did not follow through on the plan. In 2001 Nova Southeastern University received a grant from NOAA to manually extract tires. 1600 were removed at a cost of $17 per tire.
As part of a training program, DiveExEast07, U S Navy, Army and Coast Guard divers recovered 43,900 at a cost to the state of $140,000. This cost included transportation to a shredding facility in Georgia where the tires were burned as fuel. 2009 saw Army and Navy divers again working to relocate tires caught against a natural reef.
Does burning tires for fuel strike anyone else as foolhardy? The majority of tires placed in our oceans are still there, albeit not in their original locations. The recent pledge by the Florida House and Senate will also fund a study on the environmental benefits of the tire removal program. Really? Don’t we already know what the benefits are? In my mind, the money would be better spent studying ways to remove the tires and do so without creating another environmental disaster, this one in the air we breathe.