A Waste in Space

I was delivering recycling workshops at an elementary school recently and a boy in grade 3 asked me “why don’t we blast our garbage into space?”

This was not the first time I’ve been asked this.

I responded that it probably won’t make us good global citizens to be sending our waste into space, but on top of that, humans have actually left a lot of waste, or space debris, around the Earth.

A computer representation of space debris orbiting Earth

Space debris populations seen from outside Earth's geosynchronous orbit

It is estimated there are 10 million pieces of space debris in the Earth’s orbit.  While most of it is less than 1 cm in size such as paint flakes, there are larger pieces too: spent rocket stages and satellites no longer in use.

The oldest piece of human-made space junk is the Vanguard 1.  The US launched it in 1958. Communication with this satellite was lost in 1964, but it’s still up there.  In fact, it is estimated it will remain in Earth’s orbit for another 240 years!

Nerding it up a bit, I wondered how popular science fiction portrayed this waste issue?  I don’t recall Star Trek making any mention of waste, but then again they made their food out of thin air.  In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, there wasn’t any mention of waste, but they definitely had issues with drinking water.  In the “real” first Star Wars, the gang escaped into a large garbage compactor (complete with swimming monster), and in The Empire Strike Backs, the Millennium Falcon escaped by hiding among jettisoned garbage.  I guess Darth Vader and his Stormtroopers weren’t keen recyclers!

With the cancellation of the space shuttle program, there might not be too many North Americans heading into space over the next little while.  But on the International Space Station, garbage is shipped back to Earth using an unmanned ship where it burns up in the atmosphere.  We all hate it when people litter from their cars, but what about when someone litters from the Space Station?

At the moment, it doesn’t appear that governments know what to do with all of this space waste.  I wonder what space will look like 10, 50, 100 years from now?

Image from Star Wars

"I'll never join the Dark Side. You don't recycle."

About John Watson

I'm the Director of Customer Success for ReCollect Systems. We're a technology company that specializes in waste management apps that delight residents. Previously, I was the Waste Diversion Educator Coordinator for Halton Region, where I implemented award winning communications and outreach programs.
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One Response to A Waste in Space

  1. John says:

    Space Waste Transporter: Going Where No Garbage Man has Gone Before
    OCTOBER 21, 2011
    With the growing number of incidents of falling space debris in the news, there is a pressing need to find an alternative solution. John D. Arwood, a Native American and owner of Arwood Waste (www.arwoodwaste.com 1-800-477-0854), proposes a possible solution to our space waste problem. Arwood Waste has proposed a Space Waste Contract to Together Waste (www.togetherwaste.com) for the collection and disposal of space junk. This innovative concept outlines an orbital junk removal program that Arwood is calling, the Space Waste Transporter.
    The Space Waste Transporter is essentially a rocket-propelled garbage truck designed to launch into orbit and immediately go to work cleaning up the ever-growing cloud of decommissioned satellites, shuttle debris, garbage and fragments.
    NASA’s recently decommissioned Space Shuttles, with their large cargo bays and proven track record, would be ideal vehicles to accomplish this pressing task. They’d become a type of “space waste collection vehicle.” After the Transporter collects debris, it will return it safely back to earth where its cargo can be properly disposed of or recycled.
    Although most of the falling trash is burned up upon reentry, often charred remains of the junk too large to burn are sent spraying down to the ground, endangering areas as large as a 500-mile region. As more and more satellites expire, experts say it is only a matter of time before these unpredictable and out of control chunks of trash will fall on populated areas and cause serious damage. Additionally, scientists do not know the long-term effect of re-entering space debris to our atmosphere. “Could these man-made machines, continually burning through our stratosphere, slowly change the climate of our skies?” Arwood raises the concern.
    The need to safely clean up our littered atmosphere is now greater than ever. As with the energy crisis and global climate change, leaving the issue of falling space junk unaddressed will only compound the problem for future generations.
    This reality brings John D. Arwood to explore new and creative solutions. As an entrepreneur, Arwood got his start collecting and recycling used metal from factories. He now is the president of Arwood Waste and has been recycling debris since 1984. “Collecting waste in outer space should be the next step for this industry,” says Arwood.
    Reusing the space shuttles, and dubbing them “Space Waste Transporters,” is a real and creative option to solving this problem. The technology is already built, already tested and already available. He has opened the discussion for a Space Waste Transporter program to collect decommissioned satellites and bring them safely back to earth where they can be reused, recycled, or preserved.
    “This space junk is just another example of misguided disposal of trash. We sent it up there. We need to bring it down,” said Arwood. He is taking the old adage, ‘what goes up must come down’ in a very real sense. “Recycling has always been my passion. Let’s work together to clear up our skies.”
    With the growing number of incidents of falling space debris in the news, there is a pressing need to find an alternative solution. John D. Arwood, a Native American and owner of Arwood Waste (www.arwoodwaste.com 1-800-477-0854), proposes a possible solution to our space waste problem. Arwood Waste has proposed a Space Waste Contract to Together Waste (www.togetherwaste.com) for the collection and disposal of space junk. This innovative concept outlines an orbital junk removal program that Arwood is calling, the Space Waste Transporter.
    The Space Waste Transporter is essentially a rocket-propelled garbage truck designed to launch into orbit and immediately go to work cleaning up the ever-growing cloud of decommissioned satellites, shuttle debris, garbage and fragments.
    NASA’s recently decommissioned Space Shuttles, with their large cargo bays and proven track record, would be ideal vehicles to accomplish this pressing task. They’d become a type of “space waste collection vehicle.” After the Transporter collects debris, it will return it safely back to earth where its cargo can be properly disposed of or recycled.
    Although most of the falling trash is burned up upon reentry, often charred remains of the junk too large to burn are sent spraying down to the ground, endangering areas as large as a 500-mile region. As more and more satellites expire, experts say it is only a matter of time before these unpredictable and out of control chunks of trash will fall on populated areas and cause serious damage. Additionally, scientists do not know the long-term effect of re-entering space debris to our atmosphere. “Could these man-made machines, continually burning through our stratosphere, slowly change the climate of our skies?” Arwood raises the concern.
    The need to safely clean up our littered atmosphere is now greater than ever. As with the energy crisis and global climate change, leaving the issue of falling space junk unaddressed will only compound the problem for future generations.
    This reality brings John D. Arwood to explore new and creative solutions. As an entrepreneur, Arwood got his start collecting and recycling used metal from factories. He now is the president of Arwood Waste and has been recycling debris since 1984. “Collecting waste in outer space should be the next step for this industry,” says Arwood.
    Reusing the space shuttles, and dubbing them “Space Waste Transporters,” is a real and creative option to solving this problem. The technology is already built, already tested and already available. He has opened the discussion for a Space Waste Transporter program to collect decommissioned satellites and bring them safely back to earth where they can be reused, recycled, or preserved.
    “This space junk is just another example of misguided disposal of trash. We sent it up there. We need to bring it down,” said Arwood. He is taking the old adage, ‘what goes up must come down’ in a very real sense. “Recycling has always been my passion. Let’s work together to clear up our skies.”

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