Pollution and Waste

Major causes of pollution
Earlier, it was seen that the third greatest cause of extinction in species was pollution. Considering that we now know the extensive damage being done by carbon emissions, it is clear that this is an important element in human pollution of the environment. However, the waste which we produce, which is the natural by-product of the number of people on the planet and of the way we live our lives, is also of serious concern in terms of pollution.

Pollution is a health issue for biodiversity, habitats and for human beings. For example, it has been discovered that children who live in areas with increased traffic pollution have lower IQs than those who live in cleaner neighbourhoods. It is also known that many deaths during heat-waves are not from heat but from air-borne particulates. “A group of British epidemiologists and atmospheric scientists concluded that 21-38% of the UK’s deaths classified as heat-related could instead be attributed to ozone and PM10 (very small particulate matter from pollution).” One recent study at Stanford University in California showed that for every degree increase in global temperature, up to 20 000 deaths could arise due to air pollution. China is now starting to draw strong parallels between the country’s heavy pollution and the increase in babies born with disabilities – about 40% since 2001. As it is already, according to the fourth Global Environment Outlook report, 2 million people are killed each year by air pollution alone.

The IPCC’s 2001 report divides global carbon dioxide emissions into four main sectors. It says that industry account for more than 40%, buildings (homes, offices and the like) account for about 31%, transportation for about 22% and agriculture for about 4%. This summary will start by focussing on the top three sources of carbon pollution, and then looks at other forms of pollution on the environment.

One other major cause of pollution that frequently makes the news is in the form of oil spills. In November 2007, a fierce storm in the Black Sea sank five ships, including an oil tanker and bulk carriers loaded with sulphur. “Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Russian state environmental watchdog, said that the seabed could be polluted for up to 15 years without strenuous efforts to clear the oil away.” Within a matter of days, hundreds of dying birds were washed up on the shore of the sea, where the tanker carrying 2000 tonnes of fuel oil broke up. It was predicted that over the coming months there would be 100,000 tonnes of dead fish. One day later, it was reported that already 30,000 birds had died from the spill.

Few people realise how inefficient power plants are. They burn through 550 tons of coal per hour, but two-thirds of the energy from that burning is wasted. The purpose of the burning of the coal in the first place is generally to boil water which creates enormous amounts of steam, which in turn moves colossal turbines to create electricity. Nowadays, the average person uses 4 times as much energy as they did 100 hundred years, and bearing in mind that the global population has increased by 5 billion people in that time, the amount of energy needed to support the human race has increased dramatically. This is why in the last 100 years alone, the burning of fossil fuels has increased by a factor of sixteen.

Fossil fuels, which are oil, coal and gas, are often also described as “ancient sunlight” for they contain energy from the Sun but from millions of years ago. They are the remains of dead organisms that have decomposed and undergone certain atmospheric conditions. “In 2002, the burning of fossil fuels released a total of 23 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Of this, coal contributed 41 percent, oil 39 percent, and gas 20 percent.”

There is one business that receives very little negative publicity, but which produces 5% of the global carbon dioxide emissions – the cement industry. “Cement plants and factories across the world are projected to churn out almost 5bn tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2050 – 20 times as much as the government has pledged the entire UK will produce by that time.” Cement is the second most used product on the planet (after water) and almost half of it is produced in China. In Europe, cement plants face pollution caps, whereas in China, where the cement industry is booming, there are no such limits.

UK buildings have a tendency to be remarkably inefficient, although it is very simple to rectify some of these inefficiencies. Lighting in homes accounts for around 10-20% of domestic electricity, yet around 95% of the energy that typical incandescent bulbs use is lost in heat. Similarly, single-glazed windows allow for much heat loss, which in turn leads to more energy usage and pollution in keeping the room to the desired temperature. Energy is also wasted (and therefore more pollution caused unnecessarily) by heat being lost through domestic roofs, and also through heating water.

“Currently, around three-quarters of the UK’s electricity is generated by coal and gas plants, which pump vast quantities of CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere.”

Between 1990 and 2000, the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the transport sector increased by 36%, due to moving people and goods. In terms of movement of people, urban sprawl has contributed greatly, as has the rise in supermarkets for people to drive to (as opposed to walking down to the local shop). The marked decrease in the cost of air travel has also meant that more people are able to fly nowadays than ever before. The emissions from air travel look set to continue to rise because emissions from aircraft are beyond the remit of individual countries in the Kyoto agreement. For example, Bournemouth airport’s expansion plan holds a pledge that the site will be totally carbon-neutral, but this promise does not include the emissions of the increased number of planes flying in and out of the airport.

“The cocktail of chemicals that constitute aircraft emissions work in somewhat opposite ways. Because most modern jets cruise near the troposphere, the water vapour, nitrous oxide, and sulphur dioxides they emit have particular impacts. The nitrous oxide emitted by aircraft may enhance ozone in the troposphere and lower stratosphere yet deplete it further in the upper stratosphere; sulphur dioxide will have a cooling effect. It is also increasingly apparent that the water vapour that we see in the sky as contrails (also known as “vapour trails”) give rise to the creation of cirrus clouds, which in turn impacts on the climate.

Interestingly, while much media attention is on flying, shipping causes 4% of global carbon emissions. The fuel for ships is made up of the left-overs from other fuels, so its emissions are higher. “Satellite surveillance reveals that many of the world’s shipping lanes are blanketed in semi-permanent clouds that result from the particulate emissions from ships’ smokestacks.” Carbon dioxide emissions from shipping are in fact so high that they are comparable to entire carbon dioxide emissions from many industrialised nations – only five countries in the world release more CO2 than the global shipping industry. As noted before, it is just not CO2 that causes the Greenhouse Effect, and shipping is responsible for “nearly a third of the world’s nitrogen oxide emission, as well as emitting soot, or black carbon, which is a stronger warming agent than CO2. On top of all that it is responsible for a quarter of all Arctic warming.” In 2008, a leaked UN study calculates that “annual emissions from the world’s merchant fleet have already reached 1.12bn tonnes of CO2, or nearly 4.5% of all global emissions of the main greenhouse gas.” The more that we import goods from other countries, the more we can expect emissions from transportation to increase.

The increased awareness of the distance food travels has led to the concept of “food miles” which “a new report by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says … rose by 15 per cent between 1992 and 2002.” “UK food transport created 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2002 alone, ten million of those being emitted in the UK itself. That figure represents almost 2% of the UK’s total carbon emissions and 8.7% of emissions from the country’s roads.” This figure is so high because 95% of the fruit and vegetables sold in the UK are imported. Food miles are also accumulated even in produce that is grown or caught locally – in the most extreme example, because of cheap labour costs, some fish is caught in the UK, sent to China for processing, and then sent back to the UK for sale.

Other Forms of Pollution

“Figures from the World Health Organisation and the World Resources Institute suggest that there are between 3.5 and 5 million acute pesticide poisonings annually, tens of thousands of which result in death….and according to one study…99% of pesticide fatalities occur in poor countries, despite the fact that they only account for a minority of the world’s pesticide use.” This shocking statistic is little known in the developed world because of the implications that accepting it would entail – so many of our products are sprayed with pesticides, from food to clothing, that it is hard to comprehend. Without even considering the number of fatalities due to pesticides, “long-term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.”

We are apparently consuming pesticides from a very early age – traces of pesticides have been found in 70% of the samples of free fruit and vegetables given to schoolchildren, according to the 2007 annual report of the Pesticide Residues Committee.

The effects of pesticides are felt all across the world. A report to the French parliament in September 2007 explained that the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique have been poisoned for a century to come because of indiscriminate pesticide use on bananas. Effects are even being felt in the Arctic, where twice as many girls are now being born than boys because the chemical pollutants that make their way into the oceans eventually end up in the food eaten by remote Arctic communities.

While this human cost cannot be ignored, there are also environmental considerations to pesticides. Of course, the purpose of a pesticide is to stop small creatures from destroying the crops, yet there is increasing evidence that the use of pesticides is itself damaging them. For example, after extensive research, the most conclusive study so far showed that organic food contains more nutrients than food sprayed with pesticides. More concerning, though, is what is often called “run-off” where the pesticide residue enters the local water system and poisons the biodiversity contained therein.

The number of commercially available synthetic pesticides has risen in the last 50 years from around 20 to more than 450. “More than 31 million kilograms of pesticide were applied to UK crops alone in 2005, 0.5 kilograms for every person in the country.”

Like pesticide pollution, plastic pollution is something that is rarely considered because the effects are felt far away from home. Yet the statistics are mind-boggling. The amount of plastic that our society dumps has reached such great proportions that there is now an area in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or GPGP, that is the single largest body of pollution in the world. It is impossible to establish the size of it – estimates range from the size of Texas through the size of France to twice the size of continental US. At its highest density, the GPGP contains at least 100 000 pieces of plastic per square mile, most of it very small (thereby making a clean-up impossible). Because of ocean currents, most things dumped in the Pacific eventually end up in the GPGP. Unless the sunlight breaks it down over many years (in which case the chemicals pollute the ocean), they are consumed by wildlife. “Greenpeace estimates that one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals die in the Garbage Patch each year. Individual species are quite literally on the brink of extinction, the onset of which can be attributed solely to plastic interference.” The Laysan Albatross is one such species that is expected to become extinct solely because of plastic in the oceans.

While it is disturbingly difficult to go without touching anything plastic for five minutes, the most common plastic that consumers use and then dump is in the form of plastic bags. “In the UK, we use an average of 17.5 billion carrier bags per year – that’s almost one per person per day. Most of these end up in landfill sites, where, in the case of the standard plastic versions, they break down over the space of an estimated 500 years. Many supermarkets now offer biodegradable plastic bags, which can be broken down by micro-organisms. Unfortunately, they still use fossil fuels as their raw materials and they produce CO2 and methane as they break down.”

Since it costs less to send a 26-tonne container of waste to China than to send it by road from London to Manchester, much of our plastic waste is sent off to China where it is sprayed with chemicals before being burnt in incinerators.

Many people have not considered domestic waste as an environmental issue, yet “on average a person throws away 10 times his or her bodyweight in rubbish per year. One kilogram sent to a landfill produces 2kg of methane.” Since methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, the more waste we produce, the more greenhouse gases we emit. “British households produce a staggering 25 million tonnes of refuse every year. That’s around half a tonne per person. Add in our share of the country’s commercial, industrial and agricultural waste and the figure rises to 4.3 tonnes per head – approximately sixty times a typical person’s body weight. Of our domestic waste (which is increasing at 2% per year), less than a quarter is currently recycled.

Food waste is now more noticeably a problem. Because food is available all year round, we are more likely to let it rot and go and buy fresh replacements. This has led to 20% of the food that we buy being thrown away, wasting “an average household £424 a year and results in considerable emissions of methane.” In 2007, Joan Ruddock, the Environment Minister, called for a “cultural” move against over-shopping after it was revealed that Britons throw away one third of their food.

A common cause of domestic waste is nappies – the typical baby getting through around 5000 nappies before moving onto bigger and better things. The result of this is 8 million nappies per day in the UK – about 3 billion per year. “Most of these end up in landfill sites where, according to many environmental groups, the plastic will take hundreds of years to break down, the super-absorbent granules will soak up groundwater needed for the decomposition of other waste, and the excrement and urine may pose a health hazard.” “Some local councils estimate that they are paying close to £1 million annually” to deal with disposable nappy waste.

There are many global resources that are wasted because of the way most UK residents live their lives. “The average UK household uses their washing machines 274 times each year.” When these are set to high temperatures, or when the wash is then dried in a tumble-dryer as opposed to drying naturally, energy is wasted.

Much water is wasted in UK homes, either from power showers and baths (“a five-minute shower typically uses around 25 litres of water, compared to 80 litres for a bath and 120 litres for a power shower”) from garden hoses or, perhaps surprisingly, from toilet cisterns. “Cisterns that predate 1993 tend to use around 9.5 litres of water, whilst later models typically use around 7.5 litres.”

Finally, it has been calculated that while 9 trillion pages a year stay on computers and are not printed out, still offices around the world print somewhere between 2.5 and 2.8 trillion pages a year. 45% of everything printed, the equivalent of a trillion pages a year, are thrown away the same day as they are printed, the most popular –one-time use documents being daily assignments, drafts and emails.