Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Littering Humans

I was in the process of writing a post about my recycling efforts when I stumbled upon and watched an episode of BBC Horizon about The Trouble With Space Junk.

A few things hit me (there’s an unintentional pun in there):

  • As a species (particularly in the ‘West’, but increasingly in the ‘East’ as they’ve learned our ways) it seems we have an inerrant inability to clean up after ourselves.
  • Space junk and our own personal waste are not two separate issues.
  • We have a responsibility for ALL the waste we generate.
  • Pretty much everything physical we buy, bar what we actually eat or drink, generates material waste (actually, what we do eat and drink produces waste too, but I’ll not get into that here!)

Space junk is anything we’ve put into orbit that no longer has a use or purpose, and the BBC Horizon program illustrated how much stuff is up there. There is an awful lot of functioning satellites up there, but there’s also a lot of debris too. The debris or junk can range in size from particles that are millimetres across, to entire satellites or discarded rocket bodies. All of these things pose a problem. Larger items can be tracked, but smaller fragments are more difficult, yet still pose a threat (due to potential collisions with other ‘stuff’) – due to the huge velocities involved, a small fragment of paint can have catastrophic effect if it collides with, say, a satellite.

Envisat, an Earth-observing satellite, was put into orbit in 2002, but since 2012 it has been the largest piece of space junk, and it’s believed to be so due to a collision with space junk. The problem now is that there is no way to communicate with the craft and no way to instruct it onto a different path – if it hurtles towards another satellite, another piece of space junk, or the International Space Station, there is no way to guide it out of the way (and the Space Station itself is slow to divert).


I’m not sure what the plans are to deal with Envisat, but it reminds me of the Mir space station and how that was retired by bringing it out of orbit. I didn’t realise at the time but the de-orbit was carried out by sending a craft up (the Progress M1-5) to dock with Mir and then use its engines to guide it, rather then use/rely on any of Mir’s systems. I suppose if Envisat can’t be repaired then a similar process will have to be applied, and it must – we can’t just leave it up there.

I felt sad that Mir had to be brought out of orbit and allowed to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere – I knew it was cobbled together and patched up, and that it was no longer fit for service, but I wondered why it couldn’t just stay up there – a future museum-piece perhaps. The news reports at the time lead me to believe that it needed to be brought out of orbit in a controlled manner so that should any debris survive re-entry then this could occur over the Pacific Ocean, rather than inhabited land. Perhaps there was another reason.

Horizon’s program revealed to me the problem with space junk – that it doesn’t just stay up there, in orbit, not doing anything. Over time debris comes together, larger items can collide as can smaller, and every time they do new smaller pieces of debris are created: Just like a car crash, you begin with two vehicles that are single objects, and when they collide you end up with a road covered in shards of shrapnel. In space this shrapnel continues on its way, waiting for further collisions. This phenomenon is known as the Kessler Syndrome and it may prevent access to space for future human generations – space may seem like a big place but the region where all the satellites and space junk orbit is relatively small and one day this area may be just too littered and for the problem to resolve itself (such as waiting for it all to just eventually drop out of orbit) could take hundreds, or thousands of years.

Vast sums of money are spent on tracking space junk and the cost continues to rise as the number of items increases, thanks to the Kessler Syndrome. Tracking is not a solution.

This time frame of hundreds and thousands of years brings me neatly back to our own waste back on Earth. When we discard of stuff and it ends up in landfill it takes time to break down, plastics are particularly problematic, taking hundreds or possibly thousands of years. Is burying stuff and waiting for a problem to go away really an option? I think not.

As a species we seem to have a great ability to ignore or compound a problem rather than take a logical step to change our ways or correct our course. We continue to produce masses of plastic film labelled as ‘Not currently recycled’ that ends up in land fill, we continue to put stuff in space (more to with these small DIY satellite projects) with no process in place to clean up what we’ve already thrown up there, and we continue to burn excess of fossil fuels and spend vast sums of money “trying to understand more about Global Warming” rather than taking the necessary step back and changing our ways.

We need to take responsibility for everything we manufacture, whether it be plastic food wrap or a satellite put into orbit. Everything that needs to be created should be created with a “How will we dispose of this when we’re finished with it?” question in mind. As an individual, we may not have manufactured the plastic food wrap, or put a satellite into orbit, but we’re still responsible for them – when we buy food we do have a choice about what food we do buy – supermarkets use the excuse “That’s what consumer’s want.” when they fill their grocery shelves with pre-packaged fruit and vegetables, rather than sell them loose: Consumers ‘vote’ with their money, but I think this paints an inaccurate picture: consumers will buy things in a manner that is convenient: it’s easier to grab six apples off the shelf that are wrapped in plastic film than grab six individual apples (even though the wrapped ones cost more), there is also a ‘cleanliness’ perception, that somehow the plastic wrap provides a sterile environment for the apples. What isn’t appreciated is what harm all this discarded plastic wrap will do to our environment in the long term.

Ever since I moved into my own place I’ve been responsible for my own waste and my own recycling. I’ve also become increasingly conscious about my food-buying decisions – I see how different food is packaged and I see then what parts of these packaging can be recycled, or not. A bag of porridge oats, bananas or rice, for example, are in bag that are labelled as being recyclable with carrier bags, whereas a bag or Muesli, those apples or pasta are in a different type of plastic for which there is no recycling procedure. Why?

But surely we’re not responsible, as individuals, for all the space junk that is up there above our heads? Indeed we are. Envisat (ironically put into orbit to facilitate ‘environmental studies’) is the property of the ESA, the European Space Agency. Living within the EU my taxes have helped fund it. I’m not off the hook with regards to NASA’s space projects: anything I may have purchased that is the product of the USA, from beverages drunk to Hollywood films watched, these all leave a trail back to the USA’s tax man. And we all buy stuff manufactured in China.

Again, everything that has been created needs “disposal” factored into the process. Every single space mission should have strings attached, strings to ensure there are funds and methods in place to enable the safe disposal of all parts, but first we need to all work together and clean up the mess we’ve already created.



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