Tag Archives: trash

Roadside trash is becoming a big problem — and we only have ourselves to blame

Taken any road trips recently? If so, it’s very possible you’ve seen trash alongside the road, from food-related to tobacco products and the ever-present plastic. This isn’t random, or just a localized problem — it’s part of a growing problem that’s starting to take a big toll on the environment. But this problem could have local solutions. In a new study, researchers found that at least in some cases, most trash generates just two miles away from where they were found.

Image credit: The researchers.

Roadside trash is a growing challenge in many countries around the world, including the US. More vehicles, more people, and more stuff are among the factors worsening the problem over the years. Additionally, the global pandemic has increased the amount of trash, especially for single-use products such as face masks.

Trash on the road can pose safety risks and interrupt traffic flow, especially larger items. Crashes related to debris constitute 0.1% to 0.5% of all crashes. In the US, about $11.5 billion is spent every year to remove all sorts of trash from the road. Every time trash is cleaned, the crew in charge and other road users can be at risk of collision. 

There’s also the environmental impact of the roadside trash, which goes beyond the roadway network. Toxic materials like the chemical components of cigarette butts can be washed away and pollute the soils and the groundwater. Light-weight trash can be blown away by the wind or carried by the rain runoff and end up in rivers and drains.

A group of researchers from the University of California, Riverside collected trash in California for a month and then examined its composition, discriminating the manufacturers of many of the items. Thanks to the receipts collected from the roadside, they were also able to determine where the items were purchased. 

“There has been a lot of emphasis on individual human behavior as the way to decrease rates of littering,” Andrew Gray, an environmental scientist and study author, said in a statement. “In reality, it’s just as easy or even more accurate to say that if we didn’t produce the stuff in the first place, it wouldn’t get into the environment.”

Looking into the trash

The researchers, a group of undergraduate and graduate students trained in data collection, focused on the Inland Empire region, which includes San Bernardino County and Riverside County in California. The area includes mountains and valley regions and has a robust waste management system, with municipal and private trash collection. 

Each of the eighteen researchers surveyed a unique 100-to-1000-meter length of roadside for litter once to three times per week during two to four weeks. Both sides of the road were surveyed at each site, including curb, sidewalk and. Sites were selected based on convenience, so data can’t be generalized to the entire area.

Image credit: The researchers.

It’s the first study of its kind, the team argues, to do high-resolution surveys of litter accumulation rates on roadsides and identify human transport as a primary mechanism for litter transport. Based on the receipts analyzed, they found that most trash ends up on streets just a short distance from where someone purchased them. 

Almost 60% of the materials found on the roadside were plastic. Food-related and tobacco products were the most common ones. The identified branded ones were from were Philip Morris, Mars Incorporated, RJ Reynolds, and Jack in the Box. However, a big number of unbranded objects were also found while doing the survey on the road.

In the study, the researchers argued individuals, policymakers, and manufacturers should work together to solve the problem. Cities have many tools at their disposal, such as bans on items that usually end up outside or increasing street sweeping. They suggested a combination of measures will be necessary to find a lasting solution. While different areas around the globe could have different roadside trash problems, it’s likely that in many areas, the trash originates from nearby and local solutions should be designed.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. 

Rome, the eternal city – of trash

When visiting Rome, any of the 20 million tourists that arrive every year is probably expecting monumental sites, breathtaking artwork and tasty food, among many other things. But, the Eternal City also welcomes visitors with some more unexpected sights.

The Trevi Fountain in Rome. Credit: Chris Yunker (Flickr)


Dumpsters overflowing with trash, rats and seagulls foraging through garbage bags and wild boars attracted by trash are now a common scene on the streets of Rome, as part of its never-ending garbage crisis that has turned the city into what many describe as an open-air dump.

But, the problem isn’t actually new, despite only now reaching the media.

Rome’s difficult relationship with trash is decades-long and starts with “a big black hole,” which is what locals used to call the Malagrotta landfill. It was once the largest in Europe and the only site devoted to the city’s garbage disposal for about 30 years, until it was closed in 2013.

Since then, the city has been left with no major site to dump or treat the 1.7 million metric tons of trash it produces every year, and no real strategy for recycling, as successive mayors from different parties all proved incapable of solving the waste emergency.

And money isn’t the problem. The city spent more than 597 euros (US$670) per inhabitant on household waste treatment in 2017 — by far the highest in the country, ahead of Venice (US$353 euros) and Florence (US$266 euros), according to a report by the Openpolis Foundation.

Now, most of Rome’s garbage is shipped to other Italian regions or even abroad. Only 40% gets collected separately and recycled. The capital exports 1.2 million tons of its garbage every year, at a cost of 180 million euros (US$206 million). The remaining half-million tons sits uncollected for weeks.

Virgina Raggi, a 30-year old lawyer, was elected as mayor in 2016, vowing to solve the crisis. After almost three years in office, her promises are far from being fulfilled, leading to frequent protests by both citizens and tourists that can’t simply stand the smell.

Raggi’s plan contemplated the gradual expansion of door-to-door waste collection from a few neighborhoods to the whole city, with the target of 70% of waste collected separately for recycling by 2021. But the ambition felt through, with separate collection now stuck at 44%

The sites that were supposed to replace the Malagrotta landfill never became operational, as they faced staunch opposition by local residents and mayors. AMA, the city-owned company in charge of collecting Rome’s garbage, recently proposed to build 13 new facilities, which would help quite a lot.

But there’s a catch. AMA has about 600 million euros in debt and some of its former managers are being investigated, along with dozens of local officials, for allegedly teaming up to rig bids for city contracts. So moving forward with the new facilities isn’t as easy as it seems.

This means that despite money, politics and complaints, the smelly trash is here so stay, at least for the short term.

Elusa trash mound.

Ancient trash suggests climate change helped drive the Byzantine Empire into the ground

The Byzantine Empire, the eastern fringe of Rome that spanned both continents and centuries, may have fallen due to climate change — at least in part.


Mosaic showing Empress Theodora, arguably the most influential and powerful of the Eastern Roman empresses, wife of the Emperor Justinian I.
Image via Pixabay.

A research team from Israel reports finding evidence to support the view that rapid climatic changes have contributed to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. The findings, surprisingly, come from trash mounds outside an ancient Byzantine settlement, Elusa.

One man’s trash is another man’s study

The Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire was, for over a millennium, a powerhouse of European culture, science, politics, and economy. It was the product of a schism in Rome — one half of an empire so successful it had grown beyond its ability to govern itself.

In 293 AD, Emperor Diocletian took an Augustus (a co-emperor) to govern the western heartlands of the empire and divided its government into a tetrarchy (an ancient Greek word that translates, roughly, into “rule of four people”). It didn’t go swimmingly at all. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many emperors spoiled the empire. Massive (and mutually-destructive) civil wars raged behind the empire’s sprawling borders, bringing it to its knees. In 313, Constantine the Great (who held the rank of Augustus) reunited the empire, and moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople. The schism was set in stone with the emperor Theodosius I, who, in 395, gave his sons Arcadius and Honorius the rule of the East and the West, respectively.

Both halves considered themselves “Roman”, but they were different beasts. The Latin West was overwhelmed by invaders, and slowly collapsed under its own immensity; the East, a richer, more urban, Hellenistic (Greek) entity, squared off against the barbarians and bribed away the few it couldn’t defeat. At its largest, it included land in Greece, Italy, the Balkans, Asia Minor, North Africa, and the Levant. It would outlive its western brother by nearly a thousand years.

Still, it too would eventually fall. Officially, this happened on May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople. However, the whole process was painstaking, with the Byzantines losing, regaining, and re-losing areas of their huge holdings to emerging empires.

One such event was the loss of the Levant, modern-day Israel. What we know today is that this area was taken over by Islamic conquests in the seventh century, with — honestly — surprising efficiency. The team suspected there was more to the story — and their results suggest natural events played a big part in the Byzantine loss of the Levant.

Elusa trash mound.

One of Elusa’s trash mounds.
Image credits Guy Bar-Oz et al., (2019), PNAS.

The study didn’t originally intend to focus on trash heaps in Elusa, but the team took an interest in what the mounds just outside the settlement’s walls were. They dug all the way through the bottom of one such mound and found that it had a layered structure — suggesting it was created by an organized, concerted group of trash collectors during the Byzantine rule. Surprisingly, however, no trash dumping seems to have occurred for almost a century before the settlement had been overrun by invaders.

The researchers take this as a sign that not all was fine in the settlement, and trash collection stopped as a symptom of its hardships. Perusing through literature, the team identified a possible culprit in the form of the Late Antique Little Ice Age. This event, which started around 536 CE, was basically a mini ice-age generated by three volcanoes erupting in a short span of time. They filled the air with enough debris and chemical compounds to cool the climate of much of Europe and Asia.

This mini ice age likely led to crop failures, the team adds. Elusa’s chief export at the time was Gaza wine, which probably didn’t suffer from the colder climate. However, it definitely affected Elusa’s customers — without people to sell its main product to, the city likely went through a severe economic downturn and saw a decline in population. Thus, by the time war came to Elusa’s walls, the city was already reeling and unable to put up much resistance.

The paper “Ancient trash mounds unravel urban collapse a century before the end of Byzantine hegemony in the southern Levant” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

JAXA’s mission to fish for space trash thwarted by faulty tether

A recent JAXA space-tiddying mission has ended in failure after a vital piece of hardware failed to deploy, officials said on Monday.

Artist’s impression of the tether.
Image credits Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

We’ve gotten pretty good at sending stuff into space, but our recovery game hasn’t kept up. As such, there’s a lot of trash currently whizzing about in Earth’s orbit — old satellites no longer in use, pieces of old rockets, and all kinds of similar waste. There are over one million distinct bodies floating around if you count down to the really small bits, the ESA estimated in 2013.

And there’s only so much trash you can sweep under the rug before it gets out of hand. With that in mind, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency launched a ship dubbed “Kounotori” to the ISS on Friday morning to try and sort this mess out.

Among supplies such as water and batteries, Kounotori (meaning “stork”) carried an experimental trash-capturing module that JAXA built with fishnet manufacturer Nitto Seimo.

The 700-meter-long (2,300 feet) electrodynamic tether — spun from thin wires of stainless steel and aluminum — was designed to generate an electrical field while moving through our planet’s magnetic field, attracting junk to it. The idea was to anchor it to a spaceship and use the tether to slow down as many pieces of debris as possible. This would cause them to steadily drop towards the planet, touch the atmosphere, and burn up safely. A pretty solid plan.

The mission didn’t go as expected, however. JAXA encountered problems while trying to deploy the tether. Technicians tried to fix the problems for days but due to the limited time-window the mission could take place (the carrier ship used was launched in December towards the ISS and scheduled to re-enter the atmosphere on Monday) the agency had to abort the mission.

“We believe the tether did not get released,” leading researcher Koichi Inoue said. “It is certainly disappointing that we ended the mission without completing one of the main objectives.”

Before the mission, agency spokespersons said that JAXA planned to take these missions on a regular schedule, and even to “attach one tip of the tether to a targeted object.” Hopefully, this setback won’t disrupt JAXA’s space-cleaning ambitions.

Going off-world is never easy and success is never guaranteed. But not cleaning up Earth’s orbit could lock us on the planet for good. And that’s something we don’t want at all.

So take heart JAXA, we’re counting on you.


Rotterdam’s new sharks will eat all the trash in the port’s waters

The port of Rotterdam will soon feature a new marine resident. The ‘Waste Shark,’ a drone roughly the size of your average car, will float around the port’s waters keeping an aye out for trash which it can “eat” for processing.

Put a fin on it! Image credits RanMarine.

Put a fin on it!
Image credits RanMarine.

The city of Rotterdam, Holland has been making a lot of effort in the past few years to lessen its environmental impact, and the port hasn’t been overlooked. Under the startup program PortXL, the city’s port authority has also been promoting new solutions to help make it more efficient, more sustainable, and overall just a better place. At the conclusion of the program’s first year, the port signed an agreement with South-African startup RanMarine to deploy a new drone on its waters — the Waste Shark.

The Port of Rotterdam has already announced one drone resident — the AquasmartXL, a small unmanned boat equipped with a camera that allows real-time inspection and surveillance of the water surface. But where the AquasmartXL is the eyes of Rotterdam, the Wave Shark will be its mouth. This drone is roughly the size of a car and can eat up to 500 kilograms (1102 pounds) of trash using a ‘mouth’ 35 cm under the water line. It will “fight ‘plastic soup’ at the source as 90% of all waste in the ocean starts in urban areas,” PortXL’s page reads.


Allard Castelein, Chief Executive Officer of the Port of Rotterdam Authority said that the Rotterdam Port Authority is determined to explore all avenues of innovation, as stated in their operational philosophy.

“Innovation cannot be forced. However, you can create an environment in which innovation is likely to take place and be in line with the market,” he said.

“We support research in conjunction with universities, such as the Port Innovation Lab with the Delft University of Technology and of course our own Erasmus University in Rotterdam. And we collaborate with contests for students. In addition, we support Dutch start-ups that are relevant to the port, but we also scout worldwide via PortXL; the first accelerator that focuses on port start-ups on a global level.”

The contract requires four Waste Sharks For to scour the waters for the next six months as part of a test run for the drones. They will operate in areas where it is too difficult, dangerous, or undesirable to use manned solutions. This includes under jetties, bridges and other structures.

US puts twice as much trash in landfills than previously thought

Americans are sending much more trash to landfills than federal agencies estimated – twice as much, according to a new study.

Staten Island landfill. Image via Wiki Commons.

The average American tosses on average 2.3 kilograms (five pounds) of trash every day – that’s non-recycled thrash that simply ends up in landfills. Researchers at Yale University looked at the records for more than 1,200 landfills and calculated amounts, which came out to be significantly higher than what the EPA estimated. They found that 263 million metric tons (289 million tons) were dumped in 2012, while the EPA reported 123 million metric tons (135 million tons) for the same year. Jon Powell at Yale’s Center for Industrial Ecology said this difference comes from the way the garbage was calculated: adding up actual measurements instead of estimates and reports from different organizations.

If this study is correct, then it doesn’t only mean that Americans are creating more trash than previously thought, but it also means that they recycle less than estimated. EPA estimated that Americans recycled 34.5 percent of their waste in 2012, but if Powell’s data is correct, then they only recycle 21.4 percent – that’s a big difference.

The reception for this study has been positive, with many scientists trusting Powell’s data more than the EPA’s, but Thomas Kinnaman, a Bucknell University professor who studies the economics of solid waste and recycling said that the findings don’t change much, because landfills have plenty of room to expand. Still, I feel that having an accurate picture on how much garbage people are generating and how much is actually being recycled is important.

Americans generate more trash than other countries, but the figures are comparable to those of the developed world. This study was partly funded by the EPA.

Journal Reference: Jon T. Powell, Timothy G. Townsend & Julie B. Zimmerman – Estimates of solid waste disposal rates and reduction targets for landfill gas emissions. Nature Climate Change (2015) doi:10.1038/nclimate2804


Join the great Californian Trash Treasure Hunt, and help keep the ocean clean

Ok ok it’s not technically called that, but the California Costal Cleanup Day is definitely something you should check out this Saturday if you like finding cool stuff and wish your beach looked less….garbage-y.

For 31 years now, thousands of volunteers all over the world come together, put on the strongest pair of gloves they can find, and go scour the coast, lakes, rivers and their surroundings, picking up what we throw out the rest of the year.

Image via coastal.ca.gov

The Cleanup Day – put on by the California Coastal Commission – draws nearly 60,000 people each year. In Orange County alone, 7,053 volunteers picked up a staggering 64,037 pounds of trash and 3,636 pounds of recyclables last year. It’s quite an impressive event, even being hailed as Guinness World Record’s “largest garbage collection”.

Statewide, about 1.2 million pounds of trash and recyclables were removed from California’s beaches, lakes, and waterways last year. Volunteers included families, community groups, corporate sponsors and lone do-gooders hoping to help.

After each clean-up session, volunteers are given data cards to help keep track of and tally the “harvest”, with the data being fed to the Coastal Commission. Up to now, the most bountiful of all items found are cigarette buds, accounting for almost 40 percent of the debris picked up since the Day was first organised, they report.

Even if styrofoam, cigarette butts and plastic debris are collected by the truck-load each year, there have been a lot of unexpected finds among them. Last year’s more spectacular “spoils” included an E.T. doll, a partially burned bike, a fake mustache, a prom dress in and even a bottle of medical marijuana – with some of the health boosting herb still inside.

If you’re aiming to get more than your feet wet, you can join the efforts of Dana West Marina in Dana Point, where about 90 divers will be pulling up trash from the bottom of the harbor – however, you’ll need a diver’s certificate to be able to join.

 “We should find some interesting stuff,” said Kelly Rinderknecht, organizer of the underwater effort.

Other sites in Dana Point include: Ocean Institute/Dana Point Marine Protected Area; Dana Point Yacht Club on-the-water Kayak Clean Up; Doheny State Beach and San Juan Creek; Salt Creek/Strand Beach; Dana Point Harbor Cigarette Butt Round-Up; and Capistrano Beach.

The California Coastal Commission agency aims to enforce the California Coastal Act of 1976, which extended the commission’s authority to protect the California coastline. It also strives to educate the public about environmental conservation and getting them involved with coastal stewardship.


To volunteer, go to: coastal.ca.gov

Aesthetic arrangements from garbage? Alejandro Duran’s site-specific dirty decorations

They say that one man’s trash is another man’s gold, but artist Alejandro Duran gave a whole new meaning to that saying. Walking along the coastline in Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s largest federally-protected reserve, he collects many bits of trash that wash up on the coast from all over the world and uses them for site site-specific installations for an ongoing project titled Washed Up.

The goal is to take one of the most disheartening sights you can get (garbage), and make them into beautiful arrangements, in a painful and eye-opening juxtaposition – drawing attention to ocean pollution.

“Over the course of this project, I have identified plastic waste from fifty nations on six continents that have washed ashore along the coast of Sian Ka’an. I have used this international debris to create color-based, site-specific sculptures. Conflating the hand of man and nature, at times I distribute the objects the way the waves would; at other times, the plastic takes on the shape of algae, roots, rivers, or fruit, reflecting the infiltration of plastics into the natural environment.

More than creating a surreal or fantastical landscape, these installations mirror the reality of our current environmental predicament. The resulting photo series depicts a new form of colonization by consumerism, where even undeveloped land is not safe from the far-reaching impact of our disposable culture.”

Duran is a multimedia artist working in photography, installation, and video. His work examines the fraught intersections of man and nature, particularly the tension between the natural world and an increasingly overdeveloped one. He recently received the Juror’s Award from CENTER for his efforts, and has upcoming exhibitions at Habana Outpost in Brooklyn and at the XO KI’IN Retreat Center.

His work really strikes a nerve with me. I feel that his art is visceral and succeeds in drawing attention – I just hope people can get the right idea and get the right take-away from this.

The process. El proceso.

All image credits: Alejandro Duran.

(C) Noyle

Trash waves in Indonesia look appalling. Surf’s up!

(C) Noyle

(C) Noyle

Indonesia’s Java is one of the world’s top surfing destinations, as well as a marvelous casual vacation spot, famed for its pristine waters, gorgeous beaches and ‘killer’ waves. Photographer Zak Noyle recently made a trip there to shoot Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya while he would ride some waves. During one of their shoots they arrived in a remove bay of Java, but to their great dismay instead of being welcomed by the renowned crystal waters, they were appalled by a most depressing sight: plastic bottles, tree stumps and a myriad of all sorts of other trash and debris.

“It was crazy. I kept seeing noodle packets floating next to me,” Noyle told GrindTV. “It was very disgusting to be in there; I kept thinking I would see a dead body of some sort for sure.”

Most likely, the trash didn’t come from nearby, but was instead swept by currents. Indonesia is home to some 17,000 islands, where a culture and etiquette surrounding trash disposal is lacking. Locals typically dispose of their waste in the street or in river beds, after which it inevitably is washed out to sea. At the same time, authorities reportedly do not offer the means for residents to dispose of their trash. This is why it’s typically thrown in the water or – in some instances equally damaging – burn it. The stench of burned plastic is a familiar odor through out Bali.

Other parts are no different, make no mistake. A while back ZME Science reported how the Great Lakes, home to some of the most amazing freshwater ecosystems in the world, are actually more infested with plastic garbage and debris than the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

(C) Noyle

(C) Noyle


Mark Lukach, a writer for the surf website The Inertia, described his first time visiting the island of Lombok.

“My boyhood fantasy felt disappointingly ruined,” he wrote. “I couldn’t believe it. Trash in the lineup. And not any lineup. A lineup right out of my imagination – the perfect lineup … spoiled by trash.”