Dealing with Toxic Waste

The last few weeks have been incredibly busy, what with the election, highway page updates (still in progress), and theatre (always in progress). Through it all, I’ve been accumulating News Chum to discuss, and one collection seemed particularly apt to discuss, as we deal with throwing away our post-election materials: the articles related to the disposal of toxic waste:

  • Recycling Tech Gadgets. In the old days, disposing of things was easy: you just put them in the trash can. But now, every device has some level of technology in it — meaning PCB circuit boards with rare earth metals and potential toxins. How do you dispose of all this techno-junk. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans generated nearly 3.4 million tons of consumer electronics waste in 2014 and that only around 40 percent of that waste was recycled—the rest went to landfills or incinerators. The U.S. is also a top destination for e-waste from other countries—and in turn, we export much of our e-waste to places like China and India.  Here’s a useful start: 7 ways to recycle your techno-gadgets.
  • Solar Panels. If you are like me, you’ve either put solar panels on your house (or you’ve been thinking about it). But one question we don’t tend to ask: what do we do when the panels start to fail? When we need to replace them? It turns out this is a big question: although the energy is clean, solar panels decidedly are not. Solar panels often contain lead, cadmium, and other toxic chemicals that cannot be removed without breaking apart the entire panel.    “Approximately 90% of most PV modules are made up of glass,” notes San Jose State environmental studies professor Dustin Mulvaney. “However, this glass often cannot be recycled as float glass due to impurities. Common problematic impurities in glass include plastics, lead, cadmium and antimony.” Researchers with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) undertook a study for U.S. solar-owning utilities to plan for end-of-life and concluded that solar panel “disposal in “regular landfills [is] not recommended in case modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil” and so “disposal is potentially a major issue.” California is in the process of determining how to divert solar panels from landfills, which is where they currently go, at the end of their life. But it isn’t just end of life: Panels can be broken by natural events such as earthquakes or hail, and then these chemicals can leach out. The link in this post is well worth reading.
  • Rocket Emissions. We’re all used to thinking about the pollutants that come from our automobiles. But there are other airborne sources. Jet airplane exhaust is more deadly than plane crashes, and at least under the Obama administration, the EPA recognized that airplane pollution is dangerous to people. But then there are rockets.  Every time a rocket launches, it produces a plume of exhaust in its wake that leaves a mark on the environment. These plumes are filled with materials that can collect in the air over time, potentially altering the atmosphere in dangerous ways. The risk is less greenhouse gasses, and more tiny particles that are produced inside the trail. Small pieces of soot and a chemical called alumina are created in the wakes of rocket launches. They then get injected into the stratosphere, the layer of Earth’s atmosphere that begins six miles up and ends around 32 miles high. Research shows that this material may build up in the stratosphere over time and slowly lead to the depletion of a layer of oxygen known as the ozone. The ozone acts like a big shield, protecting Earth against the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. However, the magnitude of this ozone depletion isn’t totally known. Here’s an interesting article from The Verge that explores the issue of rocket exhaust pollution;  I’m pleased to say that the researcher mentioned is a co-worker (although in a completely different area).
  • Plastics. Plastics are a big concern to me. Stop and think about how much you depend on plastic everyday, from the cars you drive, the medicine you receive, the electronics you use. We can replace the oil we use for fuels in our cars with electricity, but we really don’t have a good alternative for our plastics. And yet, our disposable society throws away more and more each day; it is hard to recycle, and when you do, you don’t get the same plastics back. Boing-Boing just highlighted a recent National Geographic issue on Plastics. They noted that it shows how America became a plastic-addicted throwaway culture, and how the earth is now paying for humanity’s short-sighted sin. It really makes one think — and perhaps we should before we get that disposable take out container or plastic straw? Perhaps we should be bringing our own reusable silicon take out containers and reusable straws with us when we go out, just as we take our bags.
  • Dead Lakes. This last news chum piece isn’t something people dispose of, but it does relate to something man-made that is creating health problems as it is being disposed of — The Salton Sea. Here’s an in-depth exploration of the health issues that are arising because of the death of the Salton Sea. As the lake dries up, more and more toxic chemicals are exposed, for the lake served as the terminus of agricultural runoff. It dries, becomes airborne, and creates loads of health issues for those who live in the Imperial Valley (who often are economically depressed and can’t afford to move). Quite an interesting read.



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