Much of the focus of collapse conversation seems to be growing consumption and the energy resources required to make it possible. Less spoken of, however, is the waste byproduct of all that production and consumption. From trash, to spilled chemicals, to air pollution and more, waste is a growing issue with more problems than solutions.
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/collapsepod)
Much of the focus of collapse conversation seems to be growing consumption and the energy resources required to make it possible. Less spoken of, however, is the waste byproduct of all that production and consumption. From trash, to spilled chemicals, to air pollution and more, waste is a growing issue with more problems than solutions.
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/collapsepod)
Episode 48 - Waste
Kellan: [00:00:00] Kory, we're just going to dive right into it.
Kory: [00:00:17] No small talk today?
Kellan: [00:00:18] No small talk.
Kory: [00:00:19] All right. Let's do it, down to business.
Kellan: [00:00:20] Yeah. And I know that we've each done some research and we have some things to share, but I just want to start with this. I'm going to tell you a story and it's a true story. In the 1980s, there was a landfill crisis in long island and because the garbage dumps were polluting groundwater the state of New York passed some legislation in 1983, ordering all landfills on the island to be closed by 1990. So three years before the deadline in 1987, there's a barge with over 3,100 tons of garbage from long island.
And by the way, it was supposed to primarily contain like office garbage. And there were some rumors that it also contained diapers and hazardous medical waste, but it was headed to North Carolina with the idea of using its cargo for methane harvesting. And they were going to then spread the composted waste on fields in North Carolina, but there was some sort of a miscommunication and it wasn't actually cleared. So as it gets closer to its destination, it gets rejected by North Carolina. So then they want to take it to Florida and it gets rejected by Florida. It also got rejected by Texas and Louisiana, and it then got rejected by Cuba and by Mexico and by Belize and it wandered for three months.
Okay. And it finally ended up back at the same landfill in New York it would have gone to, and they just incinerated all the garbage. Yeah.
Kory: [00:01:54] Okay. Did it say how many gallons of fuel they spent in carting that stuff around?
Kellan: [00:02:01] I have no idea. I'm sure there's a record of it somewhere, but all I know is I spent three months wandering the world, trying to find where to put this trash.
Kory: [00:02:08] Around 6 million pounds of trash.
Kellan: [00:02:11] Yeah. And speaking of New York, there was a landfill in New York called the fresh kills landfill.
Kory: [00:02:17] You know, if I was going to have a landfill, I think that is what I would name it.
Kellan: [00:02:21] I don't know enough about New York, I don't know why they came up with the name fresh kills.
Kory: [00:02:25] Did it have a Z, at the end? That's such a millennial, like a millennial thing to do. If it was a landfill that was created like in the last 30 years, I guarantee it would have a Z at the end. Yeah.
Kellan: [00:02:33] Probably would have a hashtag and maybe an emoji
Kory: [00:02:37] hashtag fresh kills.
Kellan: [00:02:38] Yeah. The hashtag fresh kills landfill in New York, it opened in 1948 as a temporary landfill. But then in the end, it wasn't so temporary. By 1955, right, so that's just seven years later it had become the largest landfill in the world. And it remained the largest landfill in the world until 2001, which is when it closed. In some places it had garbage 225 feet high, and it has been called one of the largest man-made structures ever built,
Kory: [00:03:07] you know, only in America will the largest man-made structure ever built be made of trash and be called fresh kills. So if you hadn't been able to tell already the topic of today's episode is waste.
Kellan: [00:03:20] Is it waste or trash? Oh, it's waste or garbage it's waste or scrap still waste refuse. I think we'll call it waste. Or if you're on the other side of the pond, it's a rubbish.
Kory: [00:03:36] Yeah. I like waste. And I think the reason is because when we think of trash, we kind of get one picture in our mind right. Of a landfill, for example, what you just talked about, but waste covers so much more and we have talked about waste previously in the podcast, but under a different guise. So when we talked about waste, we talked about it in the context of catabolic collapse.
And so to start out the episode, I think it's really important that we actually take a look back into catabolic collapse for a minute and look at it from the viewpoint of waste. Because when we talked about kind of about collapse before it was more around the resources, and what happens when you don't have enough resources and that sort of thing. Waste was in the equation, but we didn't focus on it.
So if you remember and by the way, if you haven't listened to either of the catabolic collapse episodes, I'd recommend going back and listening to those so that this part makes sense.
But if you'll remember, there's four core elements to catabolic collapse. There's resources, production, capital, and waste. Resources are used in production to make capital, which eventually turns to waste. And one of the main principles of catabolic collapse is that in order for a society to grow, the amount of capital produced has to exceed the amount of waste. We talked about how the total amount of waste is known as the maintenance cost of capital. So if you're producing at the exact same rate that your capital is turning to waste, then you are meeting your maintenance cost of capital and are in what we call the steady state. You're not growing, you're not shrinking, but if you're producing at a rate less than the rate that your capital is converting to waste, then you're shrinking. And on the opposite, it would mean you're growing.
And again, if I lost you there and you don't feel confident in what I just said and understanding that, please go back and listen to those other episodes because we'd go into it in great detail.
That being said, we know the world for a long time has been growing. It's a requirement of our economic system that the GDP has to increase. Otherwise it would put our financial system into peril. So normally when we talk about waste, in terms of catabolic collapse, we're specifically talking about the need to produce enough new capital to replace everything that's turning to waste.
What we haven't really talked about up to this point is what that waste actually is. And the consequences of all that waste that we're creating. So this whole episode is meant to talk about that waste. And obviously one part of that is trash and rubbish and refuse and all those things that Kellen mentioned.
And another part of that is waste as a by-product of creating new capital. In other words, it's industrial waste. So in John Michael Greer's theory of catabolic collapse, he talks about two different types of waste. The first is waste that happens in the production process. So that's industrial waste that I just mentioned. Things like exhaust from machines, unusable by-product, things like that. And the second is that the capital that was produced will inevitably turn into waste itself. So every new car, every laptop, every refrigerator, anything that was ever produced will eventually become waste.
The more capital that you're producing, the more waste you have from the process of creating it and also the more capital you're producing, the more waste that capital will eventually turn into. So as our society continues to grow at this exponential rate, in order for our economic and financial systems to survive, we are creating an exponentially increasing amount of this waste. So then I think we'll revert back to what Kellan was talking about landfills, and the actual waste that is the result of the insane amounts of capital that we're producing in our societies.
Kellan: [00:07:03] Yeah, and I love that you have taken just a moment to really highlight why this is such an important topic, how it relates to the broader conversation of collapse, how it ties into that formula for catabolic collapse. And I appreciate that you've kind of outlined what we are going to be discussing the rest of this episode. Some of the things I think we're not going to discuss us, you know, one in particular is recycling. That is a huge topic. There's so much to talk about there. And that is very relevant. So I know Corey, you and I some point plan to do an entire episode simply on that.
And I think we're also not focusing on like human waste and sewage. There's all sorts of issues there, but for the sake of this conversation, at least what I intend to cover, you know, those things that we just stop using and throw away. And usually that's a mix of biodegradable and non-biodegradable items. Just so that you have context for what that mix looks like about a quarter of the waste that is in US landfills comes from yard and food waste.
Kory: [00:08:01] Interesting. So what, what exactly constitutes yard waste?
Kellan: [00:08:05] Yeah. So I know I kind of lumped those two together yard waste and food waste, basically anything that's biological waste, organic waste, something that can be composted. You're talking about grass clippings and leaves, you know, stuff from your kitchen and from industrial kitchens.
And that's important to know that that's part of what fills up our landfills, because we'll talk a little bit about all the methane that comes from our waste. And we'll probably touch on the fact that there are some serious health problems, not only from all the toxic materials, but also just from pests you know, disease carrying rodents and mosquitoes that these landfills are kind of a breeding ground for.
And it's hard to get a really precise figure for exactly how much waste we are producing worldwide, but at least a handful of years ago, the estimates were at 1.3 billion tons of waste per year, and so we're talking about trillions of pounds of trash and humans are expected to generate 3.4 billion, tons of trash annually by 2050.
Kory: [00:09:06] Which is crazy to me because you know, our population is supposed to increase from the pretty much 8 billion that we're at now to about 10 billion by 2050. But we're talking about the amount of trash that we're going to produce almost tripling. So it just goes to show that not only are developed nations continuing to produce more and more junk, but developing nations are also rapidly increasing the amount of trash that they are going to be producing as well.
Kellan: [00:09:33] Yeah. Those are good call-outs because part of it just has to do with the fact that we are increasing in population, but it's also because in recent decades a lot of that has come from plastic packaging and using plastics and cardboard. There was this shift a handful of decades ago, and we became this global culture of use and dispose instead of use and reuse.
So you think about it. Most of the things you buy are intended to be used and then thrown away and those items come in packaging that's meant to be immediately thrown away. And so we haven't stayed consistent, you know, globally in the amount of trash that we're producing per capita. It's actually increased a lot and it continues to increase.
And I know we're not going to talk about recycling in detail, but I will just make the comment only about 9% supposedly of plastic waste has been recycled.
Kory: [00:10:24] And again, we're not doing this episode on recycling. We'll touch deeper on this later, but I, I recall also hearing that, of that plastic that is recycled, most of it is just down cycled, which means that it will eventually hit a point where it can't be reused and will just have to be trashed. So it's basically just prolonging the amount of time before that plastic becomes trash.
Kellan: [00:10:45] Yeah. It's this tiny percentage. That's 9% of all this plastic that we've produced has been recycled. And like you said, once it's recycled, then the quality of the plastic has decreased. And you can only do that a couple of times before you can't recycle it anymore. So all of this that we've mentioned so far has culminated in what some are calling a major crisis, that this trash issue is at crisis level.
And really for the most part, we've got two options when it comes to our trash, we either burn it or we bury it, and more than half of the world doesn't have access to regular trash collection. And so this goes back to something we've talked about. I can't remember which episode it was, but I had mentioned that while I spent some time living in Mexico, there wasn't the luxury of there of having things quite so clean as we have it here in the U S. I love Mexico. I think it's a wonderful country, so many good things. But after living there for years, I came back to the U S and my first impression was just how incredibly clean everything was. I was so used to seeing trash, just everywhere in all the streets.
And in one place that I lived, everyone would just go take their trash to the river, and they'd either dump it in the river or the dump it on the side of the river. And although it was a decent sized river, the banks of the river were essentially a landfill. And I think we mentioned at one point when that river flooded, when it overflowed while I was there and what that did to that city.
So you get terrible things like that kind of severe degree of pollution. And on the other hand, you know, I go to the gym most mornings, uh, to work out with one of my neighbors. He's somebody that served in the military and a lot of his time was spent in countries in Africa and some countries in the middle east. And he was telling me about some kind of chronic breathing problems that he has. He said something like, I think it came from the burn pits. And I was like, what, what are you talking about? And he said, oh yeah. You know, usually the military base, just right outside. Or right to the side of it, that's where all the trash would get dumped. And that includes like any kind of garbage you can think of. It includes dead animals and they just burn it. It's just always burning.
And he said, the troops do it that way there cause that's just how everyone in those countries does it. Everyone just burns their garbage. And so he said, there's just all of that smoke, always being blown through the camp. Yeah. And he said constantly breathing that in, it causes lots of problems for lots of military servicemen.
Kory: [00:13:14] And that's crazy to me to think about just burning all of your trash and the fact that that's so normal in other parts of the world. I think we take for granted the fact that we throw it in the trash can, take it out to the curb, company comes picks it up. Same time, same day every week. We don't often think about how big of an impact it would have. If that system broke down, what would we do with that waste? How would we dispose of it? You know, I freak out if I forget to take the trash out one week and by week two, I've just got this insanely overflowing trash can and all the cans in my house are overflowing and all that. I saw an article just recently on Reddit that was talking about how a county in Maryland was having staffing shortages. At least that's what they were calling it. And so they were having trouble getting truck drivers to come pick up people's trash. And so it was piling up you know, I've seen on just like fictional references, the show. Have you seen the show monk?
Kellan: [00:14:03] I've only seen one or two episodes of it,
Kory: [00:14:05] so a great show, but there's a, there's an episode in which, the trash collectors go on strike for like weeks or months and trash is just piling up all over town. And Tony Shalhoub, his character bless his soul is like this OCD guy can't handle any amount of gross-ness and the city just stinks and he walks down the street and there's just trash everywhere. And it's just crazy to think about that would be the result of, of not having the infrastructure for the sanitation services. And really all it's doing is moving the trash around. Right. It's just taking all that trash away from us, but that amount of nasty is still happening somewhere. They just are burying it or burning it.
Kellan: [00:14:42] Yeah. And what you pointed out there is something really important because here we're talking about an issue that is at crisis level and yet none of us really think of it that way, but it's because, you know, in the U S. And in other developed nations, it's often just a flat fee included with your utilities or your property tax. And you just put your garbage out on the side of the street and somebody comes and takes it away. And you don't really think about it.
But you know, the United States is one of the largest contributors to the trash problem. I don't remember the exact order. I think China is the largest contributor to the trash issue, but you've also got the United States, Brazil, Japan, Germany. And so we're just producing so much trash.
And to highlight just how crazy this is. There's something you've probably heard of it before. It's called the great Pacific garbage patch and there are five off shore plastic accumulation zones in the world's oceans. The great Pacific garbage patch is located halfway between Hawaii and California, but it covers a surface area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, which is an area three times the size of France.
Kory: [00:15:49] Like I knew it was big, I've heard of this before. I was not expecting you to tell me in the millions of square kilometers. That's crazy.
Kellan: [00:16:00] Yeah. And the craziest thing about that is that I think most people, if I were to go ask them, okay, you know what they've heard about the great Pacific garbage patch. They would probably say what the great Pacific, what, what are you talking about? Like three times the size of France floating out there in the ocean and somehow we're okay with it.
Kory: [00:16:16] I mean, I'm not okay with it. And I know you're not okay with it. And most of our listeners aren't okay with it. But as a society, we've just decided, meh, we're okay with it.
Kellan: [00:16:25] yeah. We're at least okay enough with it that we haven't really done anything to stop it. It just keeps growing.
So then when we talk about trash, here are a few reasons why it's especially concerning in the broader context of collapse. It's a huge contributor to climate change. So I briefly mentioned before trash dumped in landfills releases methane gas. And outside of that, you know, cause that's the trash that we just go dump somewhere and we try to bury.
But in addition to just burying trash, we also try to burn it like we've talked about. 40% of the world's trash is burned in large open piles and that emits lots of carbon dioxide, which obviously is a greenhouse gas that's heating up the planet. I know Kory, you and I at one point talked about these tire fires and if you've ever seen a video of that, they're so painful to watch because there are these places in the world where it's just like miles of tires. It's just a huge wasteland of like car tires. And it's not always clear how these fires start, because I think it requires like 700 degrees of heat to start one of these tire fires. But once these tires start burning, it is extremely difficult to put them out. You can try and spray it with water. It's not really going to do anything. Oftentimes even when they can get it kind of partially covered, there's still fire burning down in the open cavities of these tires. anyways, I know you've seen video of these Kory, how would you describe what you see?
Kory: [00:17:51] It's insane because it's just like this sea of tire. It's all you can see all around is just millions of tires. And then off in the distance, what looks like miles away, you have this massive plume of smoke. And this is I'm referring to one video specifically that I just saw recently, and it's the blackest smoke I've ever seen. And it's just this column. And I don't remember what it said. I read an article on it and the column was like over a mile wide or something. And it just, this billowing smoke. And I can not imagine the smell, first of all. And second of all, just the amount of toxic waste and fumes that that's creating.
Kellan: [00:18:28] Yeah. You can only imagine what that does to our environment. There's a dump in Mumbai, it's called the Deonar dump. I hope I said that right. But I heard about a fire that broke out there, and this is just a typical dump. It's not full of tires necessarily, but, um, I went to go look up more information on it. And apparently there's been lots of times where these massive fires break out at this dump.
And sometimes they just rage on for days. There was one in 2016 there. They had to force schools to close and remain shut. But the point is whether we're burning garbage or whether we are burying it, it's a huge contributor to the climate issue.
So outside of that, you know, it contaminates the air, it contaminates soil, it contaminates water, it causes some other major public health issues. Asthma, birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular disease. You know, infectious diseases, low birth rate. I mentioned mosquitoes and rats, and usually those are disease-carrying animals coming out of these landfills. You know, blood infections and reproductive issues. Like all of this happens at a much higher rate in countries where people are close to their trash. So there's plenty of issues going on, you know, public health issues, even when we go dump our trash somewhere far away from us. But I mentioned my experience in Mexico, a lot of countries, there trash is close by. And so they're experiencing all these public health issues.
Also, you think about any sort of a landfill when it rains? You get tires and cans that fill with water. and outside of that, being a breeding ground for mosquitoes and stuff like that, it creates a lot of mold.
Another reason why this is such a huge concern for our society is that it takes tons of money and resources to manage. They say cities in developing countries spend 20 to 50% of their budgets dealing with waste management and just in the U S about $200 billion a year is spent on solid waste management.
Kory: [00:20:25] Yeah, I think this is one of the crazy things to me when it comes to costs. You know, you had talked about earlier, how we're supposed to nearly triple the amount of trash we're producing, but our population is not increasing at that same rate, not even close. So what that means is not only is the per capita waste increasing, but the per capita costs to deal with that waste is going to increase, which basically just means that the per capita resources that we have available to us for other items is going down.
And so when we're talking about catabolic collapse, you know, we talk about infrastructure budgets and, and governmental budgets and things like that, more and more money is having to go towards these types of expenses, it just means that there's less and less money to put towards our other welfare systems and infrastructure.. Or alternatively, it means we don't spend more money on managing our waste and it has greater and greater impacts on the environment and our health.
Kellan: [00:21:14] Yeah. And you talk about those costs, right up until just in 2018 China was accepting like half of the world's trash. We would send a bunch of our plastics over to China so that they could recycle it because they had cheap labor there and they were willing to do it. But in 2018 they enacted their national sword policy. And they had been warning us for awhile that we needed to stop sending contaminated trash. We couldn't send contaminated plastics.
And it got to the point where they just said, we're, we can't handle it. We're not going to take your garbage anymore. So since then, it's been an even larger state of crisis for most of the world. Just trying to figure out what do we do with all this stuff. But it's crazy for me to think that like, it was worth it for the U S even before that point to be shipping our garbage all the way across the world to China, that that was the most cost-effective thing.
And as just an anecdote. I remember, you know, a couple of years ago, my wife and I we'll kind of let these cardboard boxes from holidays and from stuff that we have delivered to our house, we'll let it kind of stack up. And when we're ready, we'll take that to a local recycling bin. But we went to go put our cardboard in one of these big recycling bins and it wasn't there, the recycling bin was gone. So we drove to another park where there was another recycling bin and it wasn't there either. So we drove all around and trying to find a place to dump all this cardboard. We ended up driving to the local landfill and we said, do you have a place that we can put this cardboard? And they said, oh yeah, we got that one bin over there. And we looked over there and it was just totally full. There was no room to put any more cardboard in it.
And we're like, there's no room. What are we supposed to do? And they're like, oh, well, most people just throw it away now, they don't try to recycle it. And we said, what happened? And they're like, oh, China stop taking all of our trash. So it's not cost-effective anymore to recycle anything.
Kory: [00:23:00] Yeah. I actually remember when that happened just a couple of years ago, they completely ended our local cardboard recycling program. They took away all the bins and they just said, yeah, they they're not accepting our trash and we can't afford to handle it. It was basically what it was. And so all of a sudden we've got just mountains of cardboard that used to be recycled. And who knows what that really meant, if it was actually properly recycled or not. But now it's just going right into the ground to be biodegraded or whatever over how long. But it's just sad that again, that comes back to money.
Kellan: [00:23:30] Yeah. And just to build on that, another kind of sad note is that I was doing my master's program and somebody that I knew there worked for a local city. And when I talked to them, they said, Hey, I'll let you in on a little secret. You separate out your recycling stuff and you put that in your recycling bin and someone comes and collects that. And then the rest of your garbage, you put in a trash bin and the city comes and collects that. And at least for that particular city, they said, it all goes to the same place. You think you're recycling. They want people to feel like they're recycling, but they just all dump it into the same spot.
All right. So contributing to climate change, it causes other public health issues. It takes a ton of our money. It also takes up a lot of space and we don't need to elaborate on that. It's just an issue that in a populated area, you need a spot close by to dump this continual flow of trash. And usually that's space that we could be using for maybe better purposes.
The, maybe one of the saddest things is that it totally destroys ecosystems. And, you know, in all the research that's out there, the studies they've done, it has a huge effect, especially on Marine life. So fish seals, turtles, whales. They can't always distinguish if it is or isn't food. So they consume plastics and other trash and, you know, either their digestive system just can't handle it and the die, or they feel like they're full and so they starve.
So all of this is a huge issue and I should mention that you know most incinerators, in industrialized countries at least, now remove a lot of the particles and pollutants. So when we burn our trash, usually we're not causing near as much damage as you know, in other countries where they're just burning it in an open pit.
A number of places around the world are trying to make the best of it. You know, in Singapore they burn their trash to create electricity. And that sounds great. Like, Hey, let's solve one problem while also fixing another, but it is extremely expensive and it creates greenhouse gases.
You get a lot of other approaches. You, you look in like Las Vegas, they use the methane gas from their landfill to create electricity. And there's a process that's used, it's called gasification. And it's where trash isn't incinerated, but it's, it's like this big system where highly pressurized oxygen and steam interacts with the waste. It turns it into a mixture of elements that they use to make synthetic gas. They call it sin gas. So that high quality syn gas can be converted to electricity, to hydrogen, to diesel. You know, they're saying there's ways they're working on to maybe convert it into certain chemicals for fertilizers, but they have a really tough time with that because you got to get the recipe right. And the problem is that the contents of the trash that they receive is always changing.
In one spot, you know, they were saying they had spent hundreds of millions of dollars and they'd spent decades before they realized that trying to create electricity from waste just wasn't feasible economically. It just can't compete with like the low price of natural gas, for example.
So there've been a lot of attempts. There are some good things that are happening, but when it comes to all of our garbage, all of our trash, the general consensus is that we're only making marginal gains in trying to get this figured out. We're way better off than if we weren't trying to implement any of these solutions, but it's still a growing problem. And it's at crisis levels.
Kory: [00:26:51] Yeah. And it's sad, but once again, it all just comes back down to money. You know, both governments and corporations are going to do what's in their best interest financially. And that simply, at least right now means burn it or throw it in the ground because that's what makes the most sense. It's good that the research is being done and it would be awesome if there was some breakthrough that we could get rid of these trillions of pounds of garbage every year, but it sucks to know that at least for now, and probably in the near future the crisis that you described is just going to continue to get worse.
so you have just described again, one of the two forms of waste talked about by John Michael Greer, which is capital that's at the end of its life. And I'd mentioned that the other one was industrial waste. And we're going to find in talking about this, that it's the exact same situation in that companies and governments will do what's in their best financial interest and that's usually at the detriment of human and environmental health.
So to kind of start this section off, um, I wanted to define the difference between waste and pollution, because those two can kind of seem interchangeable, but industrial waste is an all encompassing term used to describe material considered to be no longer of use after a manufacturing process has been completed. Whereas pollution is the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance or thing that has harmful or poisonous effects.
So by that definition, all pollution is waste, but not all waste is necessarily pollution. That being said much of the waste that we'll talk about here is pollution because it is toxic to the environment.
So a couple of the different types of industrial waste, you've got solid waste, toxic waste, chemical waste, and all of these different types of waste have different impacts and consequences on the environment. So ranging from its effect on water, both our drinking water, as well as other marine habitats, like the ocean and seas, but also its impact on the air and on soil as well.
And so for the purposes of this episode, I'm not going to go super deep into each one of those. I'll touch briefly on air pollution and soil degradation, and then I'll spend a little more time on water and then Kellan if we decide later on we want to come back and touch on each of these deeper we can, but for the sake of the length of this episode, we'll kind of shorten it.
Kellan: [00:29:03] What you're trying to say is I talk way too much.
Kory: [00:29:06] Now what I'm trying to say is there was way too much research to do for me to really be able to dig as far into each of these as I wanted to. And I think that we legitimately could make each of these its own episode. I actually had the thought while I was doing this research, like we could do an entire podcast, hundreds of episodes just on industrial waste and the impacts that it has on people and environment. Cause it's crazy.
Kellan: [00:29:29] And not to go off on too much of a tangent, but I felt that a lot as we've gone through all the topics that we've covered, we've got some kind of major topics and some minor topics, but even the minor ones, it seems like we could spend so much time on there's so much to learn about here. Obviously there's entire podcasts on climate change and there's entire podcasts on the issues with our waning resources and there's entire podcasts our political issues and social turmoil on our financial system and blah, blah, blah. And it takes me back to when you first introduced me to collapse. And I was like, give me the elevator pitch. Like just sum it all up for me in a minute or two and convince me, and you're like, you can't do that. Like, I can't just fit this all into one little soundbite.
Kory: [00:30:08] Yep, exactly. We're 50 episodes in close to 50 episodes on the podcast. And we have a list on the board of at least 50 more episodes to do, and we just keep coming up with more. So there's so much to it. And seriously, if you're interested in creating a podcast, I think it would be fascinating to do different episodes on these different types of waste and the impacts that they're having on people. Just Some of the articles I read had so much information on specific, basically stories of locations that were affected and how they were affected and the impacts that they had. And we'll go over a couple of those. But again, that is to say that not going to go as far into this as I would like.
But, um, just as kind of an overview. You know, in the U S when it comes to the air pollution, and we've talked about this before in a previous episode on climate change, air pollution right now kills around 130,000 people per year in the U S alone.
And that has decreased quite a bit since the 1970s, when the EPA and the clean air act was introduced. So keeping our air clean is really important and it's been getting better. It's believed that cleaning the air provides a $40 return for every $1 spent in economic gains. That's a pretty good ROI, right? Reduced healthcare costs to less sick days being taken at work to a healthier, longer living workforce. However, some indicators show certain levels of pollution beginning to increase again in the U S and nearly one in three Americans live in a county within the U S with air quality levels below what's recommended.
And where things really get crazy is with the global air quality deaths. So air pollution kills somewhere between seven and 10 million people per year globally, depending on the study that you look at. And one of the things that we mentioned in the first climate change episode that we did was that according to David Wallace Wells and his research, it's projected that the difference between 1.5 degrees Celsius versus two degrees Celsius of warming is 150 million deaths from air pollution alone by the end of this century.
So when you look at global economic growth and developing countries especially, where there is little regulation on the way that corporations are doing their manufacturing processes, what they're burning, what they're putting into the air, we're talking about an insane potential for so much hazardous waste to be spread throughout communities, decreasing air quality, putting dangerous chemicals into the air.
So from there, we can go to soil degradation, which again, we did an entire episode on this. Much of the reason that our soil degrades is from industrial and agricultural processes. We talked about how plants require specific and intricate sort of delicate growing conditions. Small changes to soil can destroy plant life and therefore entire ecosystems. So some studies show that 75% of Earth's land has been degraded. So that's not arable land, but all of Earth's land has been degraded to some degree due to chemicals as a result of agricultural or industrial processes. And in that we're not just talking about crop land or humans ability to directly grow food for themselves, but all of the delicate ecosystems required to make that possible.
Kellan: [00:33:18] man, that's just crazy to think that to some degree or another, that much of Earth's land we have degraded or had a negative effect on no, it brings up a lot of questions for me on just how much, and I'm sure it's much more severe in certain areas than others. And if that's simply because of what we've pushed into the air, or if there's other reasons why those industrial processes are causing that kind of soil degradation. But regardless, just to think that we've had any effect at all in a negative way over that much of the land, that's just wild.
Kory: [00:33:49] Yeah. And while I didn't, like I said, go into a lot of detail with air pollution and soil degradation, where I did go into some further research was in water contamination. And as I go through some of these examples and this article that I read on water contamination, you can apply these same things to air and to the soil to kind of see where those numbers are coming from and where the real problem lies.
So when it comes to water, I read a lot of great articles and found a lot of super cool things, but this one article particular had some really great stories in it. And so I decided to just kind of pull out some sections of that article and I'm just going to kind of read them. This is from public integrity.org from an article titled "industrial waste pollutes America's drinking water", pretty straightforward title.
But it through several different stories and gave several cool numbers. So for example, it says " Anaconda, aluminum in Montana produced manufacturing waste that contaminated local water sources with led and chromium. Gulf states utilities in Louisiana, discharged toxins into marshlands, polluting waters with benzene and other chemicals. And the Conklin dumps in New York leaked, volatile organic chemicals into groundwater. The EPA regulates 94 chemicals in drinking water sources, but doesn't set standards for many others that could potentially be dangerous. A news 21 analysis of EPA data shows that the drinking water of more than 244 million people contains contaminants that can be linked back to industrial practices and are not currently regulated. It can take years, sometimes decades to clean chemicals from polluted water the EPA records show."
So when we're talking about 244 million people, that's in the U S which is two thirds of the U S. It goes on to say that "in 1980 Congress passed the comprehensive environmental response compensation and liability act, commonly known as the Superfund program to try to clean up widespread contamination. The super fund helps pay for cleanup when the companies responsible for the pollution won't admit fault or can't afford cleanup."
So this is just ridiculous to me, the EPA, a government program funded by taxpayers comes in and says, don't worry when corporations screw everything up and contaminate water, and either refuse to admit fault or can't afford to do the cleanup, then we'll use a taxpayer money to go in and clean it up for them.
Basically just giving them free rein to do it right. And I'll come back to, to that in just a minute, why it's really infuriating. But the article goes on to say that "mining and smelting operations are responsible for contaminating water with heavy metals in almost every state in the nation. In Northeast, Oklahoma, where mountains of mining waste mark the landscape, the tar Creek area near pitcher is among the most contaminated places in the country.
Decades of lead and zinc mining left a 40 square mile area littered with piles of chat, mining, remnants, contaminated with lead and other heavy metals. When the mine shut down in the 1970s, the effects of the pollution were so devastating that residents of four towns had to be relocated."
It goes on to say, "'if it gets cleaned up, it'll have to do it on its own. And that will take 1000 years.' The EPA issued what they called a fund waiver balance, which means this problem is so big, the groundwater, that it would break super fund, so we cannot fix it." So they're basically saying the problem is so bad that the super fund, which again, a taxpayer funded program, is not even going to fix it.
So basically what we're reading here is that there are issues out there in the U S specifically with our drinking water or groundwater that are so bad that not only will the companies not fix it, but the EPA themselves says, there's just nothing we can do about this.
Kellan: [00:37:17] It's scary stuff that you're saying. There, there were some comments in those quotes that you read. One of them talks about how there's all of these types of particles that the EPA doesn't test for. And it says they could potentially be dangerous. And I think there's still a lot to worry about there. I mean, I think of our episode when we talked about reproductive issues and all of the health issues, lifelong problems people are having because of these tiny amounts of toxins.
But it does make me wonder, you know, you said 240 million Americans, but it's not like we're seeing 240 million Americans in hospitals and having really severe health effects. And yet then you mentioned this case where, what was it? Four cities that they had to relocate people from because of the pollutants. So clearly there's a huge issue here. I still struggle to know just how severe it is.
Kory: [00:38:08] Yeah. And it's hard to exactly pinpoint that, right? Because on one hand, you're talking about, okay, two thirds of the country are drinking water with chemicals in them, from industrial practices that we don't know how those are affecting us.
Obviously they're not so poisonous that they're killing us. The 94 chemicals that the EPA does monitor are obviously the ones that they know have serious health effects. But that being said, you know, like you mentioned, there's so much that we don't know about what chemicals do do to our body, our reproductive health, while we're not seeing all those people in hospitals, we are seeing increasing rates of cancers, increasing rates of dementia and other diseases that we don't know where they're coming from.
And it could be from one single chemical that we don't know enough about, or it could be a mixture of hundreds of different chemical. But this number that I'm about to read is crazy. So it says " a 2013 study by the national research council attempted to determine the total number of sites in the country with groundwater pollution related to industry. By looking at Superfund and other monitoring programs, such as the resource conservation and recovery act, the report documented a conservative estimate of more than 126,000 sites. One of the study's authors, Michael Kavenaugh says it's probably higher than that. 126,000 is a number that is probably low."
And again, it goes back to the severity of each of those contaminations is going to differ. Some of those contamination sites will be so severe. They're breaking the Superfund and relocating entire towns. Some of them are going to be unknown contaminations and chemicals. The article it says "in Albany, Georgia, three separate areas of groundwater are polluted with cyanide and chloroform from various industries. One of the contaminated areas came from a landfill on the Marine Corps logistics space. The us Navy has taken responsibility for the base and is providing residents in the majority African American town with an alternative water supply due to the health risks associated with the pollution. 2015 report published in the science journal environmental research letters found a pattern of industrial polluters being located in low income and minority communities across the country. "
One of the authors of the study said that "industries have learned to avoid conflicts with communities that have the resources to resist." So basically saying they're putting the locations for these industries in areas where they know that the citizens can't or won't fight back, usually in minority neighborhoods. He goes on to say, "it may be because of our racially segregated housing patterns. Those poor communities of color are easier to target .Because of housing discrimination. African-Americans and Latinos are not able to move as freely. They may not be able to get the loans move or even want to because of discrimination in housing.
That's messed up.
It is, um, it says income and race, both play a factor, but the majority of studies show that race tends to be a more important and significant factor of where these polluters decide to establish themselves.
And it really is. It just goes back to the whole idea around systemic racism, where we've got a system where it's easier to put a high pollution manufacturing facility in a predominantly African-American or poor neighborhood, because there's less resources for that neighborhood to fight it. And when I was reading this article, especially this part here, it made me think of the parable of the sower is a book that I recently started. And I've heard a lot of talk about it recently on the subreddit. And they're also making a movie about it. So while I haven't finished it, um, it's basically a book that was written in 1993 by a woman named Octavia Butler. And she, it's incredible what she's writing about because she's naming so many things that are actually happening today.
And the story was written in a future date. It was 2024 is when it starts. We are not in near as dire situation, As the parable of the sower depicts. But it's interesting because they talk about these neighborhoods in California where they have to put up walls around the neighborhood, and most of their major utilities are gone and they have to pay for fresh water and they have to pay for all these crazy things, just exorbitant and fees. And it depicts a world in which corporations have basically completely taken over. And the marginalized neighborhoods are the ones that are suffering the most.
And so it's just really sad to see in real life that this type of thing is happening, that people are feeling so locked down and stuck in neighborhoods where the military is having to give them alternate sources of water, because theirs is so messed up because of a privately owned corporate institution that puts profit over the health of thousands of people.
So, anyway, I'm going to keep reading here " while illegal dumping can occur the EPA monitors most industrial chemical releases into water sources through a permitting program. Between 2011 and 2015 companies dumped more than 14 billion pounds over the permitted limits. Numbers are based on a calculation the EPA uses to compare the harmfulness of each chemical released. So in the first place, the EPA is creating permit saying, okay, you can dump this much hazardous waste, but don't go over that, which has already messed up. But then they're saying in just those four years, over 14 billion pounds over the permitted limits were being dumped of hazardous waste.
And when I say hazardous, I guess this is talking about, it just says chemicals released chemical dumps. So we don't know how much of that is hazardous, but I don't imagine that most chemicals, dumped into an environment are going to be good for ecosystem and that environment.
Kellan: [00:43:22] I'm starting to have flashbacks here to an episode we had, I think a few months ago where we talked about the water crisis and that we're already having a major shortage of fresh water worldwide. And that simply because of the size of our population and some of these issues from climate change and, you know, international conflict stuff like that. So to think that we already have a major shortage of fresh water. And then that we're exacerbating that problem even further by polluting our sources of fresh water. It just feels like another weight on my back right now. Right. It's just that much more sad and tragic.
Kory: [00:44:01] Yeah. And there were specific examples in this article that I didn't, uh, copy over to read, but the talked about, um, well water and the number of Americans specifically that rely on water coming from a well, and they don't have access to, to properly test their water, but that many of them are finding them, entire towns are finding that their well water is contaminated from industrial practices and people are drinking this water. You know, the municipalities aren't testing that water. This is aquifers and things that. That aren't regulated. And so it is causing all sorts of issues. And as people are finding that they can't utilize their Wells anymore, and they're also not connected to municipal water. They're having to either drink bottled water constantly, or be forced to leave their homes, which may not sound terrible to have to move, but they can't sell their homes if the water isn't drinkable.
So I'm almost finished with this article. I've got a few more paragraphs. It says "dioxins byproducts of incineration are among the most released chemicals. They are known carcinogens and exposure has been linked to health effects, such as heart disease, diabetes, and reproductive issues. Almost every living creature on earth has been exposed to dioxins according to the national institutes of health. Chemical companies released the most contaminants of all industries, according to EPA documents. Utilities, plastics, and rubber manufacturers, mining companies, and petroleum and coal producers round out the top five. NIPSCO, N-I-P-S-C-O a coal-fired power plant has been providing bottled water to residents since 2001. More than 900 of these households have been relying on bottled water for more than two years. " And it's interesting that again, we come back to bottled water and it's like, Not only are these companies creating all this contamination in the existing water supply, they're then purchasing bottled water for the citizens to drink causing even more contamination from what you talked about, which is the single use plastics.
These bottled water is terrible for the environment. And I actually pulled a stat here just from Nestle alone because everybody loves Nestle. Uh, it's estimated that some 95,000 metric tons of mismanaged plastic waste, for example, burnt or dumped is created by Nestle every year across six developing nations.
In 1997 report found that in the UK over a 12 month period water pollution limits were breached 2,152 times across 830 locations by companies that included Cadbury and Nestle. So that's just an example of one company who bottles water, uh, producing 95,000 tons of mismanaged plastic waste.
And the article, it says, "researcher, Robin Saha said the companies may be donating to the nearby school, or they may be buying a new gym. And it's kind of like they're paying people off to kill them in a sense. So you're accepting these things at what cost? Industries will develop where there is a path of least resistance, but it's up to community members to work together to dictate what kind of companies set up shop in their neighborhood. ' We'll extinguish our own, the entire human race if we're not careful' said Tracy Edwards and advocate from Walnut Cove who wants coal Ash removed, somebody has to do something and it can't always be about somebody earning a dollar. We have to preserve humanity."
Kellan: [00:47:10] It is so crazy. It's making me think about the movie, Wally. And maybe, you know, a Pixar kids movie, like that comes to mind because I've got little kids that watch movies like that. But the premise of the movie is that humans had to leave the planet, and they left robots on earth to kind of clean up the mess we made until things are to a point where life could be sustainable again on earth. But Wally is one of these little trash compacting robots that just spends all his day roaming around packing these little cubes of trash together and stacking them up.
And as we go through everything that I've talked about, everything that you're talking about, it just makes me envision a future where everything is covered in waste and garbage.
Kory: [00:47:52] Yeah. And the quotes and the comments from these people on this article are existential, right? They're like we are literally bringing about our own demise by just covering ourselves in trash, in pollutants. We're destroying the very like essence of what keeps us alive, which is our water sources.
So like I mentioned, drinking water isn't the only water that's being contaminated by industrial waste and humans are by far not the only species that are suffering the consequences. You may have heard of the contaminated water released from Piney point in Florida.
So basically this was an old phosphorus plant that had these massive reservoirs used to store toxic water, which was a by-product of phosphorus production. And as early as 2008, the army Corps of engineers, which is the same group that writes up the infrastructure report card that we did a couple of weeks ago, warned that the reservoirs could be breached.
And instead of the government doing something about it, it was instead purchased by a private entity who ignored that issue in the name of profit. And this is, I see, are there was suddenly signs of an imminent breach. So the state of Florida declared an emergency. They evacuated over 300 homes and then opted to approve the release of between 300 and 500 million gallons of contaminated water from the reservoir into Tampa Bay.
So you basically have a scenario where they could have prevented it. They didn't. And then when the emergency happened, they justified the release of all that water saying, you know, "oh no, what a catastrophe, there's nothing we can do. This is the only way that we can keep us all safe." And while the full environmental impacts of that release are still not known, recently a red tide in the bay has resulted in 600 tons of dead marine life discovered in recent weeks. So we're just talking about, you know, hundreds of thousands of pounds of dead animals washed up on shore because of this massive red tide.
The animals in that included manatees and Goliath groupers, which can weigh hundreds of pounds as well as puffer fish, eel, horseshoe crabs, sheep's head mullet, snuck, red drum tarp on sharks, grouper catfish, and numerous other species of fish. And we've talked about red tides or the dead zones in the ocean in a past episode, and they're caused by something called eutrophication, which is basically when the nitrogen and the ammonium in the water suck the oxygen out. Basically red tides literally suffocate the animals found in them. And, uh, a big cause of these is from agricultural runoff. Fertilizers used in agriculture runoff into the ocean and, and causes and red tide isn't completely always human caused. It's a natural occurrence that does happen, but they are certainly getting much worse. And it is believed that this specific red tide was caused in large part by this phosphorous plant, which was letting off ammonium and nitrogen. And it's crazy to me to think about, you know, all of this stuff is regulated in the U S at least, and obviously not regulated well enough, but you think about all the parts of the world where this type of regulation is not in place. And again, those countries may be growing in the amount of industry that's occurring. And so it's crazy to think about how much of this type of thing is happening in those areas without any attempt to control it.
Kellan: [00:51:01] So I'm thinking about all of the, you know, dead animals that you mentioned from this red tide. And I'm thinking about all these people that you talked about who are being exposed to chemicals in their drinking water. Usually they're people that are already disadvantaged, these minority groups and people that are living in poverty .
And that is stacking together with, you know, an article I saw it talked about people in China where we've been sending our trash for all these years, and it showed a bunch of images of people that are digging through the trash. People in extreme poverty that dig through the trash to try to find things to eat and try to find whatever else they think will be useful or valuable.
And it feels like it's highlighting all these terrible injustices that are already taking place in the world, but it's also adding to them and it's creating problems kind of on a micro level for individuals, you know, individual people and animals. But then we talk about at the macro level, all of the issues that it's causing for the environment and for humanity as a whole.
And when we talked about trading our independence for convenience, we talked about this idea of planned obsolescence, that in the name of making more money companies will sometimes purposefully design their product to fail sooner than it needs to so that we have to discard it and buy another one. And all of that combined just kind of makes me want to scream, like what a crazy thing that we're that wasteful. And it's only increasing and not even just at a like steady linear rate. It's increasing exponentially.
Kory: [00:52:34] Yeah. And there's struggles to even come up with laws to help with that. You know, there's this whole thing going on right now with the right to repair and how hard it's been to, to get that push through. And it just feels like at a time when it is more crucial than ever for governments to realize that we cannot let corporations destroy everything, destroy us in the name of a profit, the opposite is happening. Because of corruption in government, because of how lobbying works. It is those very corporations that get to decide the laws.
And so we're not seeing the necessary changes, like you said, instead, we're seeing an exponential increase in the amount of waste produced. In the end, it comes back to that simple formula as explained by John Michael Greer: in order for economic systems to survive, we have to create more than the waste that we're losing.
Yeah. And so far we've succeeded at doing that. We just keep creating more and more. Companies are finding creative ways to be able to create more through planned obsolescence. And meanwhile, we are struggling to figure out what to do with the waste and how to keep it from damaging our own wellbeing, as well as the wellbeing of the planet.
Kellan: [00:53:46] So on that depressing note, maybe we can take this as a little bit of an invitation to try to be just a little bit better, contribute to the problem maybe just a little bit less, find ways to help other people, see what we can do to mitigate all that. I'm glad I'm having the opportunity to do the research here and also learn from you as you to research Corey, because I feel like all this makes me just a little bit more aware and a little more conscious of no, not only what's going on around me in the world, but what part I play in it?
Yeah. Kellan and I have said many times we are not the perfect examples of what one should strive to be when it comes to conservation and things like that. We're just learning about this along the way, and we're not minimalists, you know, we consume and we understand that.
So when we say, you know, We hope that everyone listening to this will strive to be a little better. I think we can genuinely say that we are also striving to do a little bit better and we never want to come across as like a preachy call to action type of podcast. And we're not that, but we do hope that the education part of this, bringing this type of thing to light will influence people to want to make decisions and actions in their own lives to help mitigate the problem in the best way they can.
So thanks for the research Kellan this has been a huge topic and I just feel like there's so much more to expand on this. So maybe we'll circle back and touch on this again later, but I think this was a good starting point. And so we will talk again.