People don’t like getting their hands dirty. Rubbish disposal has always been left to society’s lower ranks, with an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude from people who are not directly involved. Today, however, both the increase in the amount and the complexity of waste produced are threatening human health and the environment as never before. The composition of waste has altered, the most dramatic change being in the number of chemicals we dump. Chemicals in the form of pills, pesticide or paint are an essential part of our lives. The disposal of waste from these chemicals has increased the problems in the way we treat rubbish, forcing us to face what we would rather throw away. Pollution of water, air and soil is widespread. Lead in the air affects our brains. Heavy metals in the soil are taken up by plants and passed on to us when we eat them. The environment is seriously affected as well. Trees are dying from acid rain. Rivers run black with pollution. Mysterious green waste from petro-chemical factories spoil fields where children play.
The increase in complexity of waste has caught disposal authorities by surprise and today’s dangerous waste is showing up the shortcomings of the disposal systems. The most common form of waste disposal is the “tip”, nowadays called a landfill. Landfills are holes in the ground in which rubbish is deposited. The rubbish settles and then decomposes. Liquids leak slowly through into the earth and down into the groundwater, into the water which we drink and use. Nature is able to deal with a little such abuse but the quantity of waste has increased to such an extent that Nature cannot deal with it anymore. In order to cope with the problem of containing poisonous waste, modern landfill sites are lined with plastic or clay which can prevent their contents from leaking into the surrounding soil. But this is still a short-term measure: landfills will eventually leak.
Some rubbish is disposed of by burning. The effectiveness of this depends on what you are burning, at what temperature and where the smoke-borne waste finally lands. Black smoke means that whatever is in the furnace is not burning thoroughly. This can increase the danger to the environment, as in the case with certain chemicals found in lubricants, electrical transformers and many other things that we use every day. These chemicals are among the most poisonous ever produced, and are very difficult to get rid of. High-temperature burning is thought to destroy them, but if they are burned at a lower temperature, harmful poisons are released. High-temperature burning, however, requires expert handling and special furnaces, so it is expensive.
Dumping waste straight into the sea is especially popular with island nations such as Britain. The UK treats the seas around it as a personal garbage can, emptying most of its sewage there and allowing industries to dump their waste into the ocean waters. Britain ‘s dumping of nuclear waste in the Atlantic has caused a storm of outrage and the practice has halted for the time being. But Britain is now asking other countries for permission to dump waste in their territorial waters, far away from the angry voters at home with their “not in my backyard” attitude to waste.
Another way of dealing with waste is to recycle it. Industry is beginning to see the benefits in making use of its waste. Nothing, however, is better than prevention and we all have our parts to play. We only have to look in our garbage cans. Plastic containers, fluorescent light tubes, nail polish, fly sprays and garden chemicals all add to the problems of poisonous waste. Households don’t produce as much waste as industry, yet it can be just as harmful.