Trash – Concept, classification, treatment and space trash

We explain what garbage is, how it is classified and its treatment. Also, its environmental impact and what is space debris.

Around 2.1 billion tons of waste are produced in the world today each year.

What is garbage?

With the word garbage (from the Latin versatility, from the verb verrer, that is, “sweep” or “clean“) we commonly call all useless waste materials, that is, unlike waste, it cannot be reused or recycled.

In general, these materials are the product of the different generation and consumption activities of the human being, and are usually accumulated in different collection places (known as landfills, garbage dumps or landfills), as a way to prevent them from circulating in the environment. The latter, however, is an ineffective solution, and the accumulation of garbage is an environmental problem worthy of urgent attention.

Garbage normally contains materials of various kinds, some biodegradable and with less environmental impact, but also others that are permanent and capable of drastically altering the chemical and physical balance of ecosystems. In addition, garbage causes the appearance of diseases in humans.

Globally, an estimated 2,100 million tons of waste are currently produced per year, enough to fill around 800,000 Olympic swimming pools, and only 16% of this amount is treated or recycled in any way.

Garbage classification

Garbage, as we said before, can consist of wastes of different origin and different nature. According to this criterion, a classification that distinguishes between:

  • Organic waste. Those that were part of a living being at some point, and that are therefore naturally biodegradable, when in contact with oxygen and environmental forces. Examples of this are dry branches and leaves, fruit peels or food scraps.
  • Inorganic waste. Those that do not have origin in a living being, but in different chemical or artificial processes of human industries. They do not tend to degrade easily, and many take thousands of years to reduce to small particles, and even then they still pose a risk to living things. Examples of this are plastics, synthetic fabrics, glass and pieces of machinery.
  • Mixed waste. One that combines ingredients of various kinds, organic and inorganic, combining for example food waste with plastic packaging. This type of garbage is the least manageable, since it requires a previous separation process to be able to allocate organic waste to compost, and inorganic waste to recycling or other treatments.
  • Dangerous residues. That which, whether or not of biological origin, contains substances capable of toxic chemical reactions or spreading infections, and therefore represents a serious risk to human and animal health. These materials must be treated with special procedures, and are examples of this: used syringes, human fluids or organs, corrosive acids and bases, radioactive elements, etc.
  • Recyclable waste. That which can return to the productive circuit as raw material, and once again serve to manufacture consumer items. These materials are the first to be separated from the rest to be redirected to the recycling industry, such as paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum or wood.

The environmental problem of waste

The presence of garbage in the environment causes different forms of inconvenience, since it is substances and compounds that are not normally part of the ecosystem, and that contribute to unbalance the biochemical and physical processes that are its own.

Thus, the pollution of seas, soils and even the air (by solid microparticles that remain suspended) favors the appearance of unsuspected and often unpredictable chemical reactions, the consequences of which can be:

  • Combustible, corrosive or toxic reactions that consume organic matter or that make the environment incompatible with life.
  • Inorganic particles (microplastics) that are ingested by living beings and, being indigestible, end up lodged in their tissues, contaminating even food that we humans eat.
  • Large quantities of small-sized solid material they muddy the waters and the air, entering the body of living beings by breathing and causing diseases.
  • Non-biodegradable solid waste accumulations that they impoverish the quality of ecosystems and that on many occasions they are ingested by animals that mistake them for food, causing death and unbalancing the food chain.
  • Hazardous biological waste can trigger epidemics.

Garbage treatment

radioactive waste treatment
Hazardous waste requires specialized and controlled treatment.

The response to the environmental problem of garbage happens, at all times, by undertaking different treatment mechanisms, which allow recover usable wastes and neutralize those that are potentially dangerous, or whose presence triggers adverse chemical reactions.

Most of these treatments is based on the separation of waste: Filtering and settling of wastewater, for example, makes it possible to extract large and small solids, respectively, so that the waters that return to the environment are as clean as possible.

The same occurs with the separation of physical waste before and after reaching the landfill, in order to recover recyclable and reusable materials, significantly reducing the amount of garbage that is going to give to the environment.

Other forms of treatment may be more specialized, such as the treatment of hazardous waste or radioactive materials, which require special packaging and are often destined for remote storage places, under controlled conditions, so that their components do not circulate freely in the ecosystem.

The problem with these dynamics is that it requires a good amount of resources and is minimally profitable, especially in terms of a consumerist and irresponsible life model. That is why many treatment initiatives are funded by foundations, NGOs, and state actors.

Space junk

space junk
Space travel has left a pile of garbage orbiting our planet.

The interior of our planet is not the only place where human beings have left our waste trail. Space travel that began since the mid-twentieth century has led to the construction of a veritable accumulation of space debris, which found in the outer layers of the earth’s atmosphere, in perennial orbit like satellites of very small size, moving at a very high speed.

Screws, nuts, pieces of metal and other solid materials, thus, form a heap of sidereal debris, and represent a danger for space travel themselves, since they can impact aircraft and astronauts, causing severe accidents that, in turn, leave more garbage in orbit.

The rule of the “Three Rs”

Known as the “rule of the 3 Rs” or “the three Rs of ecology”, it is a methodology for treating waste materials that aims to reduce the amount of garbage that we throw into the environment. To do this, it proposes three principles of action, which are:

  • Reduce. To the extent that we reduce the consumption of materials that generate waste, logically, there will be less waste. This applies especially to single-use plastics, such as disposable packaging, wrappers or cutlery, which once used (or sometimes not even that) are thrown away. But the proposal is not only to consume as little as possible of these materials that poison the environment, but also to reduce energy consumption, or what is the same, to consume energy responsibly, with a deserved criterion of scarcity, since producing it has a very high ecological cost that cannot always be measured in monetary units. Unbridled consumerism is, without a doubt, the most responsible for the pollution of the planet that exists, and it is the first habit that we must, collectively, abandon.
  • Re-use. Also in order to reduce the amount of scrap and waste, reuse is key insofar as it allows us to take advantage of an object for a second useful life. In other words, it is about making the most of the objects we consume, and not assuming that we can always buy a new one, since the old one will inevitably go to waste. This goes through printing on both sides of the paper sheets, filling bottles, and so on.
  • Recycle. Finally, the separation of waste to give rise to the recycling industry is the third responsible attitude of consumption. It is not the same, nor should it have the same destination, a bag with biodegradable and liquid waste, as another with reusable cardboard, glass, can or paper, which serve as raw material for human industry itself. In this way, waste has a second (and sometimes even third) chance to serve us and not immediately go to the environment. The same can be done with organic waste, in the form of compost or compost for plants.