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Illegal Dumping

Dr. Nathan B. English discusses illegal dumping and its impact on the environment.
Hello, and welcome to step nine, Illegal Dumping. So, in the next five to eight minutes, we’ll just have a brief chat about illegal dumping, and this is everything from someone who tosses a cigarette butt out their car window, to a cruise ship illegally dumping their wastes in coastal waters, to a dump truck backing up to an empty creek, and emptying its load of old tires into the creek. So, illegal dumping covers a range of activities, and it’s basically where anybody is putting waste into the environment, in a manner that’s not legally allowed. And most developed nations, and even developing nations have laws against littering, and illegal dumping.
And it’s good, too, because illegal dumping leads to a host of issues. And, this is just some typical Australian litter, and I’ve got it up on the screen here, because I want to just talk about some of the issues, and then one main issue at the end here, ocean pollution. Obviously the main effect that we see is the visual pollution, and, we can handle visual pollution, I think sometimes that’s why we tolerate it. But there’s also lots of other meaningful impacts aside from just our own aesthetics being violated, right? Obviously, the one impact can be that containers, so plastic containers, tires, things like that, can collect water.
And then that water is stagnant and sits there, and allows mosquitoes to breed, and then those mosquitoes can become vectors for mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, yellow fever, Ross River fever. Townsville’s famous, has its own own virus, that’s a mosquito-borne disease. So yeah, so that’s an important issue. Cleaning up litter is way more expensive than it is to dispose of that same amount of trash in an appropriate manner, through bins or approved waste processes. So, in the US, it’s estimated that about $11 billion each year is spent cleaning up litter just litter alone, not even illegal dumping, but just litter on streets and the like. It’s labor-intensive because it’s all spread out, you got to pick up each individual piece.
And then I think we all recognize, and it’s been quite prominent in the news that litter, especially plastics and non-degradable waste in our environment, can cause a host of issues for wildlife. And that’s a real issue, and it’s an impactful issue. And, it does decrease the survivorship of many different species. And basically it occurs through animals eating the plastics. Those plastics, because they’re not degradable, do not dissolve in the animal’s stomach, and they accumulate in the animal’s stomach until essentially, the animal can’t eat anymore, its stomach is filled with plastic, or its elementary canal is blocked by plastic, and essentially, the animal starves to death.
So it’s not only a death, it’s a pretty gruesome death for the animal as well. Other ways animals can perish through interactions with litter is a lot of times they’ll get their heads stuck in containers. And because there’s no way for those animals to pull the containers off their head, again, they starve or suffocate to death. And it’s just, it’s a terrible way to die. So, those are the main impacts. And I think for me, I just want to take some time to think about what ends up in the ocean, and the main kind, the two sort of most common types of litter are cigarette butts, and fast food packaging.
These are the ones that, when you look at studies, these are the ones that, especially in metropolitan areas, these are the most common components of litter in litters, in waste streams, and illegal dumping streams. That litter, because it’s on the ground, may eventually wash into the ocean. And, this is from a study done in 2014, where they estimated, based on some observational data from the oceans, they estimated more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean gyres, weighing over 250,000 tons, at sea. So that’s 250 million kilograms of plastic broken up, and circulating around, and floating in the ocean, and that doesn’t count the plastics that have sunk or been incorporated into sediments on the bottom.
Now, these plastics tend to accumulate in what are called ocean gyres. And this is an example from the North Pacific. These are areas of the ocean where wind and sea currents tend to create these eddies of, sort of like, whirlpools, but without the sucking down, and, plastics that are floating, tend to accumulate in these patches of ocean, they’re sometimes called the Great Ocean Garbage Patch. And this is some pictures of what that might look like. Now, it doesn’t often look like this picture on the right, oftentimes it looks like this picture on the left, where you see this ocean, it looks all right.
But if you actually take a sample of that ocean, it’s filled with plastic, and this is terrible for fish and marine organisms that interact with these plastics. ‘Cause again, it clogs up their digestive systems, or, they get entangled and die. Common for sea turtles and marine mammals to become entangled in nets that have come loose from the boats, or that have been illegally dumped overboard. And once they’re entangled and they’re in those nets, they just can’t get out, and they drown essentially, in those nets. Fish can drown as well, if they’re not allowed to move freely, they can’t move enough water over their gills, and get enough oxygen. And so, when they become entangled in nets, they can die.
This is more examples of impact of illegal dumping. On the left-hand side is a dead bird, and you can see that its stomach contents, there’s a Bic, there’s a lighter in there, quite a few bottle caps. So this bird’s able to consume these items, but because the items do not degrade in the bird’s stomach, it’s unable to excrete them, and eventually its belly just fills up, it can’t actually eat anything more, and it starves to death, and dies. And then those plastics are, unfortunately those plastics are re-released to the environment, to go and kill another animal. So, because they don’t degrade, it’s really quite problematic. Even plastics that break into smaller pieces become problematic as well.
And there’s more and more studies looking at, actually, municipal water supplies and the presence of something called microplastics, which are microscopic debris and plastics, microplastics in our own water supplies. So, I think somebody estimated we eat a couple of credit cards worth of plastic unintentionally every year in our food and water supplies. From a microplastics point of view as well, I will tell you that the most abundant microplastic that I’ve seen in some studies is lint, from synthetic clothing. And, it ends up making its way into the environment from dryers and washing machines. And that is a increasing problem in water supplies.
I’ll just end this is that we’re not only dumping things on Earth in uncontrolled ways, but we are also leaving material and debris in space. Now, it’s not illegal to dump things in space because no laws have been made yet about how we use space, and how we get rid of waste materials in space. But space is the space, and orbits around Earth are becoming increasingly crowded, and increasingly dangerous, ‘cause I tell you what, you do not want to run into even a very small piece of plastic going 10,000 kilometers per hour. It will leave a very large hole and ruin your day.
And even now, the Space Station, the International Space Station encounters debris, every now and then, it finds small pit marks. The only reason that it’s not such a great problem yet is because space is so vast, and the chances of a collision are so low, but as we increase the amount of materials in space, as satellites might crash into each other, they create even more debris, and people are worried, eventually there might be a chain reaction kind of event.
Debris do eventually fall out of especially low Earth orbits, but it takes quite a bit of time, and so there’s a little bit more talk today, about actively removing waste from space, in order to keep it clear for all the things that we do want up there, such as radio satellites, Global Positioning System satellites, and, Earth sensor satellites, that look back on Earth, and tell us more about our environment. Cheers.

Illegal dumping covers a range of activities from cigarette butts to large-scale industrial dumping and leads to a host of issues. In addition to the visual pollution it causes, illegal dumping has a huge impact on the environment.

Watch Dr. Nathan B. English discuss some examples of illegal dumping and the consequences it causes for animals and our food and water supplies.

Now it’s your turn:

Illegal dumping often occurs because it is cheaper than properly disposing of waste. What could policymakers do to make illegal dumping a less attractive option? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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