10 February 2011

We came, we saw, we trashed: 3 big ways that our species has polluted the earth

Of all the millions upon millions of winged, webbed, whiskered, scaled, and furry critters living on our planet, human beings happen to be the only species responsible for producing non-biodegradable waste…and a heck of a lot of it. Between consumer packaging, unwanted possessions, construction rubble, textiles and leftover food, the average U.S. citizen – representative of just 5% of the global population -- generates an estimated 1,600 pounds of garbage annually or 4.4 pounds daily. To put those two figures into focus, it’s helpful (or just plain horrifying) to note that ultimately, a full 30% of our planet’s waste is 100% U.S. born and bred.

It’s not exactly fair to trash the yanks, though – especially when there are plenty of other equally irresponsible global residents who contribute almost as enthusiastically to our planetary mess. Like Australia with their 4.17 pounds of garbage per person every single day, Finland homies with 3.74 pounds and Canadians with their 3 ½ pounds. See? We don’t suck that much.

Actually, we dowe really do. As a species – the only one capable of creating such an ongoing, monumentally astounding volume of waste – we seriously need to clean up our collective acts because it’s no longer just an aesthetic eyesore issue. Our pervasive junk is screwing up Mother Nature’s trunk! Don’t believe me? Okee-dokey. Just take a look at the following all-time worst examples of human-produced planetary pollution -- there aren't that many, but ohhhh, they've certainly had a lasting effect.


We’ve been conditioned through countless media reports into thinking that there are massive plastic waste islands located throughout our global ocean gyres. If it were only true, it might actually be a good thing since it would be easier to clean up. Unfortunately, what really exists out at sea is a confetti-like slurry of BPA-leaching plastic bits that are on average, less than 10 millimeters in diameter and so completely pervasive that marine biologists fear they're nearly impossible to clean up. Even when an artist like Chris Jordan creates a collage using real Pacific Ocean-harvested plastic to highlight the mounting ocean waste tragedy or a whole crew of modern-day seafarers take a journey around the world quite literally ON a boat crafted out of 12,500 reclaimed PET plastic beverage bottles, it still doesn’t seem to make us see the error in our hyper-consuming ways. If it did, then why are U.S. citizens still throwing away 60+ million perfectly recyclable plastic beverage containers every single year?

Plastic in the ocean -- yeah, it's a big problem -- but then again, so are the other toxic chemicals that we've released into the atmosphere via chlorine chemical plants and coal emissions (among many other industries) which then ultimately permeate the sea. All of that heavy metal in the form of methylmercury is absorbed by algae before then migrating into the flesh of marine life such as tuna and halibut, and finally onto the end consumer -- usually hungry human beings. Mercury poisoning is particularly detrimental to children and those who are pregnant since the toxins can seriously compromise nervous system development, but it sure ain't a picnic for sea creatures either.

One has to wonder what type of new and exciting poisons we continue adding to the sea each time we drop artificial reefs like retired army tanks, navy ships, subway cars and tugboats onto the ocean floor. Oh, you didn't know about that? There's actually a vast colony of our transportation-related junk languishing twenty thousand leagues under the sea -- things as diverse as remnants of old bridges, planes, automobiles, trucks, submarines, and ginormous segments of cable. Out of sight, out of mind...but we tell ourselves, "It's for the good of the fish! Now they have new places to live!!!" Apparently there's no place like asbestos-contaminated home.


For many decades now, we’ve strived to explore the final frontier just beyond the veil of our own atmosphere using big fancy rockets and high-tech satellites, except…oh wait…what happens when we’re done with all of our gear? No problem – let’s just drop it like it’s hot and worry about it later. And that’s precisely what we’ve done as is evidenced by the ten million chunks of space debris (including collision fragments, rocket pieces and inoperable satellites) currently circling our planetary orbit. Nice going, mankind.

In a very intriguing turn of eco-events however, Japanese space agency JAXA intends to do right by our planet by utilizing ultra-fine 1 millimeter metal thread fishing nets (courtesy of Nitto Seimo Co) which will be used to drag as much waste as can be mustered right out of orbit. The collected space haul – net and all -- will ultimately burn upon contact with Earth’s atmosphere if everything goes according to plan. So, at least in this case, there's hope on the horizon.


It’s really hard to fathom the comprehensive scale with which our species has polluted the earth. Though news headlines remind us on a regular basis what we incessantly do to kick Mother Nature in the shins, sometimes only pictures can offer the proof we need to finally grasp the gravity of our ways.

J. Henry Fair’s seemingly abstract aerial photographic portraits of the eco-devastation caused by wildly unsustainable human practices and incessant accidents (such as factory farming pollution, coal mining, gas drilling, and the BP oil spill) are eerily compelling because they’re impossibly beautiful and revolting in the same breath, much in the way that you simply can’t take your eyes off of Mary Taffe’s psychedelic lake pollution photos.

Wang Jiuliang’s visual documentation of Beijing, China’s bloated landfill waste problem is, on the other hand, jaw-droppingly harsh – which is exactly how it should be -- as are Andrew McConnell’s searingly raw shots of American & European e-waste being hand-processed by Ghanan children.

Take a look outside your own window and savor the view while you can, because at the rate we're going, our landfills and eco-scars will truly end up inheriting the earth.

Elizah Leigh | @elizahleigh
Elizah Leigh's master's degree in education combined with her passion for the written word and deep-seated interest in environmental issues has proven to be the ideal trifecta for her present status as a green journalist. Currently commissioned to write a reference book on vegetarianism, Elizah hopes to inspire people through her words. Follow Elizah on Facebook.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/un_photo