Through June 12: Exhibit on government management of trash

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

PULLMAN, Wash. – An exhibit opening this week in Washington State University’s Terrell Library continues the yearlong exploration of America’s garbage problems through the entity in charge of monitoring and fixing them: the government.

“Government and Waste” runs in the Terrell atrium exhibit case until June 12. It is organized by the WSU Libraries’ working group on government information to coordinate with the common reading book for 2014-15, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash,” by Edward Humes.

“Government is deeply embedded in national efforts to manage waste and mitigate the negative effects of waste on our landscape, in our water and in space,” said government information librarian Marilyn Von Seggern. “Virtually all state and city governments are involved in waste management as well.

“We can only scratch the surface of this immense topic, presenting graphics and photos that portray the stark realities of too much garbage and suggesting a few of the many solutions that are being researched and tested,” she said.

On land

Several government agencies manage waste on land, most prominently the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It monitors solid household, industrial and hazardous waste and regulates pollution hazards to water, air and land. The EPA is also involved in recycling efforts on many fronts.

According to the EPA, Americans create 251 million tons of trash every year. Of that, 135 million tons ends up in landfills and incinerators. More than 95 percent of food waste that could be composted is thrown away.

Recycling and composting efforts are slowly increasing; EPA notes that in 2012, Americans recycled and composted 87 million tons of garbage. Annually, this saved more than 1.1 quadrillion BTUs (British thermal units) of energy – the same amount consumed by almost 10 million U.S. households in a year.

Every ton of paper recycled can save the energy equivalent of 165 gallons of gasoline. Recycling one ton of aluminum conserves more than 153 million BTUs, equivalent to 26 barrels of oil or 1,665 gallons of gasoline.

The EPA provides consumer information on reducing, reusing and recycling. For details, visit

In the seas

Marine debris is “one of the most widespread pollution problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration marine debris program. “Huge amounts of consumer plastics, metals, rubber, paper, textiles, fishing gear, vessels and other lost or discarded items enter the marine environment every day.”

Plastic makes up the bulk of marine debris, and its impact may best be seen in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area in the Pacific Ocean where debris naturally concentrates because of ocean currents and wind. Over time and exposure to the sun, plastics break down into smaller pieces but don’t biodegrade. The result is an area full of plastic bits suspended in seawater – what author Humes calls “plastic noodle soup” and “plastic chowder” in “Garbology.”

A dead Laysan albatross chick, showing a belly full of plastic garbage. (Photo by Claire Fackler via Wikimedia Commons)

Plastics have been found in the digestive tracts of fish, sea turtles and marine birds, particularly the Laysan albatrosses of Midway Atoll, where much of the marine debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch winds up. According to an article (
) from the BBC, “about one-third of all albatross chicks die on Midway, many as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.”

Marine life also becomes entangled in discarded nets, ropes, line or other fishing gear, packing bands, rubber bands, balloon string, six-pack rings and more garbage in the oceans.

NOAA has developed a mobile application with the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative that allows people to track and log marine debris when they find it on beaches and coastlines. The app is available at

For other ways to prevent and reduce marine debris, visit

In space

Trash is not relegated to Earth alone. NASA’s orbital debris program tracks unused objects in orbit around our planet. Examples include spent rocket stages, old satellites and fragments from disintegration, erosion and collisions.

As of 2012, the NASA program has monitored more than 21,000 pieces of orbital debris larger than 10 centimeters (almost 4 inches) in diameter. There are about 500,000 particles between 1 and 10 centimeters and more than 100 million particles smaller than a centimeter.

The amount of large debris in orbit greatly increased in 2007 after China conducted an anti-satellite missile test that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite, followed by an accidental collision of American and Russian communications satellites in 2009.

Estimates for how long space trash remains in orbit vary depending on altitude.

“The higher the altitude, the longer the orbital debris will typically remain in Earth orbit,” according to NASA’s FAQ on the topic ( “Debris left in orbits below 600 kilometers (373 miles) normally falls back to Earth within several years. At altitudes of 800 kilometers (497 miles), the time for orbital decay is often measured in decades. Above 1,000 kilometers (621 miles), orbital debris will normally continue circling the Earth for a century or more.”

Cleaning up space debris, like other forms of pollution, is a challenge economically, technologically and politically. Past measures have emphasized preventing the creation of new debris, designing satellites to withstand impacts by small debris and more. NASA and other research agencies are also exploring ways to remove floating objects through use of lasers, tethers and other methods.

To learn more about space junk and the NASA program, visit To read about a new proposal by a Japanese research institute to remove space debris with lasers, visit


Marilyn Von Seggern, WSU Libraries government information librarian, 509-335-8859,
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries public relations/communication coordinator, 509-335-6744,