Bleached by harsh UV rays from the sun, the Stars and Stripes have disappeared and the nylon has faded to white. But the Americans didn’t just plant one flag on the moon; they planted six. And space travelers have left a much heavier footprint than simple human tread marks. Littering the lunar surface are almost 200 tons of forgotten trash.
According to NASA, along with 96 bags of urine and vomit, there are old boots, towels, backpacks, and wet wipes. With no garbage cans at hand, the astronauts also littered the landing site with magazines, cameras, blankets, and shovels. And after several international missions, there are now 70 spacecraft on the surface, including crashed orbiters and rovers.
Compared to Earth, the moon has a very thin atmosphere,1 so it will take some time for the evidence of our visits to erode and disappear. Arizona State University scientist Mark Robinson suggests that with the impact of particle-sized micrometeorites hitting the garbage, the evidence of our brief stays on the moon will break down and be gone in about 10 to 100 million years.
1 Contrary to conventional wisdom, the moon does have an atmosphere, though it is insignificant compared to the density of Earth’s atmosphere. The technical term for this type of collision-free atmosphere is a “surface boundary exosphere.”
Viewed from the lunar surface, our own planet rises above the horizon and shines into the night like a blue moon. From a distance, it too looks pristine, but up close you would see a gleaming cloud of space junk orbiting Earth. Our planet has come to resemble Pig-Pen from the Peanuts comic strip. Right now, there’s almost 3,000 metric tons of space junk continuously circling us.
This wasn’t always the case, of course. In the 1950s, Earth orbit was junk-free. It was not until March 17, 1958, that it acquired a permanent resident. Today, this dead satellite, the Vanguard 1, holds the title of the oldest piece of orbital debris. It completes a full revolution around Earth every 132.7 minutes. But it is no longer alone. It’s been joined by more than 29,000 other pieces of space junk invisibly circling us, along with over 1,700 active satellites.
The U.S. Air Force has been tracking orbital debris, which is mostly made up of spent rocket stages and decommissioned satellites, and keeps a record of any object larger than a baseball. Parts do break loose that are smaller. Everything from paint chips, nuts, bolts, bits of foil, and lens caps are among the 670,000 objects that are one to 10 centimeters in size.
Award-winning broadcaster, Ziya Tong anchored Daily Planet, Discovery Channel's flagship science program, until its final season in 2018. Tong also hosted the CBC's Emmy-nominated series ZeD, PBS's national prime-time series, Wired Science, and worked as a correspondent for NOVA ScienceNow alongside Neil deGrasse Tyson on PBS.
As the size of the objects decreases, the number of them increases. For debris that ranges from a millimeter to a centimeter in size, the number is approximately 170 million. But just because they are small doesn’t mean they are harmless. According to the European Space Agency, a one-centimeter object moving at orbital speed could penetrate the International Space Station’s shields or disable a spacecraft. The impact would have the energy equivalent of an exploding hand grenade.
But we don’t only dump our spacecraft in space. We also dump them in the sea. In the Pacific Ocean, miles under the waves, is a site called Point Nemo, which serves as a spacecraft cemetery. Chosen for its remoteness (the closest land mass is nearly 2,400 kilometers away), it is where international space agencies discard large space objects that don’t burn up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. From 1971 to 2016, over 260 spacecraft were dumped at Point Nemo. The junkyard became the final destination for 140 Russian resupply vehicles, a SpaceX rocket, the Soviet-era Mir space station, and several of the European Space Agency’s cargo ships, all of which lie on the ocean floor, slowly disintegrating.
At launch, we marvel at these multi-billion-dollar technological masterpieces, but once they’ve outlived their use, like all objects, no matter how advanced or expensive, they become garbage. Humans are a tool-making species, but as a consequence we are also a trash-making species. And while we don’t have a love-hate relationship with our things, we do have a “love- indifference” relationship with them. We covet objects before we own them and later throw them away without thinking about them again.
That’s the thing about our garbage: We have become experts at acting like it doesn’t exist. Space trash, in fact, barely registers as a blip compared to the enormity of the waste our species generates. In disused home appliances, computers, mobile phones, and other electronic equipment, or e-waste, we generate close to 45 million metric tons of waste every single year. That’s the equivalent of over 4,500 Eiffel Towers. Trash that could obstruct a city skyline. But not only do we not see it, most of us don’t even know where it goes.
There are some things we do know about our trash. The world leader in trash production, for instance, is the United States. Around the world, rich countries and rich people produce more garbage. Individually, each American throws out about 3.2 kilograms of garbage a day, or over 90 metric tons of garbage in a lifetime. As Edward Humes writes in Garbology, “A single person’s 102-ton [US] trash legacy will require the equivalent of 1,100 graves. Much of that refuse will outlast any grave marker, pharaoh’s pyramid or modern skyscraper.”
But even then, what we toss out is just the tip of the proverbial trashberg. Most garbage comes from the manufacturing process. What we throw in the bin—the final product—represents a mere 5 percent of the raw materials from the manufacturing, packaging, and transportation process. Put another way, for every 150 kilograms of product we see on the shelves, behind the scenes there’s another 3,000 kilograms of waste that we don’t see. In total, the world produces approximately 3 million metric tons of garbage every 24 hours. That number is expected to double by 2025. And if business continues as usual, by the end of the century it will be an unfathomable 10 million metric tons of solid waste a day.
It isn’t just our factories that create waste. As biological beings, we generate our own waste as well. And with 7.5 billion people on the planet, that crap adds up. In The Origin of Feces, David Waltner-Toews charts the meteoric rise of human excrement: “In 10,000 bce there were about a million people on the planet. That’s 55 million kilograms of human excrement scattered around the globe in small piles, slowly feeding the grass and fruit trees … By 2013, with more than 7 billion people on Earth, the total human output was close to 400 million metric tons (400 billion kilograms) of shit per year.”
With such colossal amounts of human biological waste and manufactured solid waste, it’s like a magic trick of epic proportions that it all just seems to—poof —disappear.
Before the days of the garbage collector, though, people had to deal with their shit, literally. There was no getting away from it, because it sat, steaming, fly-ridden, and reeking right in front of us. The familiar Brooklyn stoop we all know from Sesame Street is not just an architectural carry-over from the Dutch, it was also a way of dealing with 19th-century waste. The steps lead up to the parlor floor because at the time in New York, people threw their garbage out of the windows and right on to the city streets. The trash was so high—up to a meter in the winter when it combined with snow and horse waste (the latter of which piled up at a rate of 1,000 metric tons of manure and 227,000 liters of urine every day)—that the stoop allowed people to get up above the mess and make their way safely in the front door.
Nineteenth-century waste management was assisted by scavenging dogs, rats, and roaches, but the primary street cleaners were pigs. In the United States, piggeries were specifically erected for big towns with populations of over 10,000. Our trash was their dinner, with an average of one metric ton of waste digested by 75 pigs a day. It’s not uncommon to find paintings of New York City at the time featuring these roaming pigs. For the Europeans who painted them, the urban swine were a novelty, but for New Yorkers the fact that hogs ran wild in the streets was pretty much standard fare.
Up until the 1840s, thousands of pigs roamed around Wall Street. Today, the area is known for its bankers and high-rollers, but the name Wall Street, from the original Dutch “de Waal Straat,” derives from a 3.5-meter fence built to keep hogs from causing damage to the streets and residents’ gardens.
In Paris, trash and human waste also flooded city streets. The French were the first to establish a corp of sanitation workers and began managing city waste in this manner four centuries earlier. But streetside filth was a continual problem, leading the French king to hand out an edict to deal with the squalor in 1539:
François, King of France by the Grace of God, makes known to all present and all to come our displeasure at the considerable deterioration visited upon our good city of Paris and its surroundings, which has had in a great many places so degenerated into ruin and destruction that one cannot journey through it either by carriage or on horseback without meeting with great peril and inconvenience. This city and its surroundings have long endured this sorry state. Furthermore, it is so filthy and glutted with mud, animal excrement, rubble and other offals that one and all have seen fit to leave heaped before their doors, against all reason as well as against the ordinances of our predecessors, that it provokes great horror and greater displeasure in all valiant persons of substance.
In Paris, waste became a private affair. Instead of putting it out in the streets, Parisians were ordered to build cesspools in their backyards. Inevitably, the neighborhood stench, along with bouts of cholera, became far too much to bear.2 The French switched over to a method the Chinese had been using for thousands of years: managing their population’s waste by turning it into “night soil,” a euphemism for human excrement used as manure for farming.
By the 1800s, what growing cities had discovered was that a city, by its very nature, localizes and concentrates waste on a massive scale. They become, for lack of a better term, engines for producing giant shit heaps. The Chinese had been diffusing the situation by taking their excrement from populous areas and returning it to the countryside. There, it wasn’t waste. It was brown gold. Human manure was returned to the soil in order to feed the nation. The system, in fact, worked very well, and until recently China was renowned for its fertile soil and sustainable agriculture. For thousands of years, about 90 percent of human manure was recycled in China and accounted for a third of the country’s fertilizer.
Consider for a moment your own digestive contribution. On average, you excrete about 50 to 55 kilograms of feces and about 500 liters of urine a year. But this “waste” contains valuable nutrients. According to the German Corporation for International Cooperation, on an annual basis that works out to about “10kg of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium compounds, the three main nutrients plants need to grow—and, helpfully, in roughly the right proportions.” One person’s excrement is enough to fertilize and grow over 200 kilograms of cereals a year.
The Japanese also recognized the value of shit. During the Edo period (1603 to 1868), in the area that is now Tokyo, the Japanese ran a closed-loop system, and shimogoe (translated as “fertilizer from the bottom of a person”) became critical for sustainable agriculture. On roadsides near the fields, buckets were provided for travelers, who were encouraged to leave their waste behind. As David Waltner-Toews writes, “The seventeenth-century city of Edo sent boatloads of vegetables and other farm produce to Osaka to be exchanged for the city’s human excrement.
As the cities and markets grew (Edo had a million people by 1721) and as intensive paddy-farming increased, prices of fertilizers, including night soil, rose dramatically; by the mid-18th century, the shit owners wanted silver—not just vegetables—for payment.”
Crap had become a high-priced commodity. Landlords could increase the rent they charged if the number of tenants dropped in their building, because with fewer defecators to pad an owner’s income, running the property became less profitable. As a business, managed through private agents and not the government, shimogoe prices were set by the landlords, leading to conflict with farmers, who were often gouged with high prices.
3 “Human night soil is essentially the residue of what people eat after they have absorbed necessary nutrients. The night soil of a population that ate a lot of fish and meat generally contained more nitrogen and phosphate. People whose diet was mostly vegetarian (cereals and vegetables) had night soil that was generally poor in nitrogen and phosphates, but rich in potassium and salt.”—Tajima, Kayo. ‘The Marketing of Urban Human Waste in the Early Modern Edo/Tokyo Metropolitan Area’. Environnement urbain : cartographie d’un concept. Vol 1. (2007).
There was also good shit and bad shit. Rich shit surely stank as much, but it was more highly prized. As the rich ate more diverse diets, this resulted, according to the farmers, in better nutrients in their feces.3 As for its value, the price of shimogoe depended on demand, but at its height rose up to 145 mon per household. For perspective, in 1805, 100 copper mon could buy a good lunch of mushrooms, pickles, rice, and soup. By the 1800s, the price of human waste was so valuable that stealing it became a criminal act that could result in imprisonment.
Human waste was also ranked in comparison with compost and other animal manure. In an 1849 issue of the American magazine Working Farmer, the eminent German agriculturalist Professor Hembstadt is quoted as saying,
If a given quantity of land sown without manure, yields three times the seed employed, then the same quantity of land will produce:Five times the quantity sown when manured with old herbage, putrid grass or leaves, garden stuff, etc. etc.,Seven times with cow dung,Nine times with pigeon dung,Ten times with horse dung,Twelve times with goats’ dung,Twelve times with sheeps’ dung, andFourteen times with human urine or bullocks’ blood.
But for those steeped in the fine art of stercoration, there was one type of excrement that was always top of the list. When it came to the best fertilizer in the world, there no competing with guano.
People have gone to war over many things in history, but the Guano War of 1864 to 1866 may have been the first time a war began over the sovereignty of bird shit.4 The guano was a virtual goldmine for Peru. Spain knew this and was determined to reassert its power and seize it from its former colony. As a result, Chile joined the two-year war, and the South American countries fought together to fend off their former colonizers.
Coming in by boat, you smell the Chincha Islands long before you see them. With nesting colonies of pelicans, boobies, and cormorants, the Peruvian archipelago was home to over a million birds. Each bird produced about 20 precious grams of droppings a day, together producing around 11,000 metric tons per year. Over generations, and with little rainfall in the area, the mounds grew into mountains. And by the early 1800s, the guano on the Chincha Islands was over 10 stories tall.
Guano’s property as a powerful fertilizer had been known to the locals for centuries; they called it huanu. Seabird excrement is particularly potent because it’s packed with marine nitrogen. As the birds feed on huge schools of anchoveta and plankton, they act as “biological pumps” that transfer the nitrogen into terrestrial ecosystems.5 This gift of soil fertility was so highly valued that for the Incas killing a seabird could result in a death sentence.
5 Bird poop brings 3.8 million metric tons of nitrogen out of the sea each year. The nitrogen comes from dissolved gases in the air that mix with the water, and are broken into fixed nitrogen. During the 1800s this process was largely done by cyanobacteria.
The Europeans came to realize its value when explorer Alexander von Humboldt first brought some back with him in 1804. For the farmers using it on their land for the first time, the results seemed miraculous. Exhausted soils suddenly became fertile again, and it boosted crop yields by 30 percent. Unlike regular barnyard manure, guano was special shit: According to one expert, it was 35 times more powerful.
By 1850, as science writer Thomas Hager notes, the Chinchas—these barren islands covered in bird shit—were “acre for acre … the most valuable real estate on earth.” A “guano mania” had taken hold. Tens of thousands of metric tons of guano were exported every year, accounting for up to 60 percent of the Peruvian economy.
The Americans, eager to secure their own sources of guano, passed the Guano Islands Act on August 18, 1856, essentially allowing the United States to lay claim to any island they found with guano deposits. As stated in Section 1 of the act: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.” To date, over a hundred islands in the Pacific and Caribbean have been claimed, and while most titles were relinquished after the guano was exhausted, the act is still in effect today.
Eventually, that became the problem with the Chinchas. The guano was a finite resource that could not be replenished as quickly as it was extracted. By the time of the guano war (which Spain lost to the united front of Chile and Peru), there was less than a decade’s worth of guano left. When it was gone, Peru went bankrupt.
One man saw the disaster looming and realized that Europe would soon be in very deep shit, figuratively speaking. With the primary guano source depleted, the fertilizer business had moved on to Chilean nitrates, a white granular substance found in the desert that was the next best thing. But William Crookes, an English scientist, had run the calculations. By his estimate, at the current rate of demand even the nitrates would be gone within decades.
In his presidential address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1898, the esteemed chemist sent out the clarion call before a packed house: “England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat. As mouths multiply, food resources dwindle … I hope to point a way out of the colossal dilemma. It is the chemist who must come to the rescue of the threatened communities. It is through the laboratory that starvation may ultimately be turned into plenty … The fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is one of the great discoveries, awaiting the genius of chemists.”
What Crookes was urgently calling for was the development of synthetic manure. But despite his prophetic remarks, the world had no way of knowing that this fertilizer would literally come from thin air.
It has been called the greatest invention no one has ever heard of. Without the Haber-Bosch process, half the people on the planet would not be alive today. It was developed in answer to Crookes’ rallying cry to the chemists as a way to feed the world without relying on the two primary sources of fertilizer at the time: the now all-but-dwindled supplies of Peruvian bird poop and the strategically held reserves of Chilean desert nitrates.6
6 Nitrates had a dual purpose, they could be turned into fertilizer or explosives. For Europeans, it took three whole months for a shipment to arrive. The Germans, in particular, were keen to create their own source of nitrates since they knew that during war time, they could be blockaded, which would cripple their ability to grow food and keep them from replenishing supplies of gunpowder.
What both of the earlier sources had in common was that they were rich in fixed nitrogen. And while nitrogen is plentiful in the air around us—it makes up 78 percent of what we breathe—the kind of nitrogen plants need to take up from the soil comes in a different form, as fixed nitrogen. On land, it’s made naturally in one of two ways. The first and most dramatic is through lightning. During storms, bolts of electricity are powerful enough to crack apart the tight bonds of atmospheric nitrogen, and when it comes into contact with water the element takes the form of nitric acid, which then leaches into the soil. The second is from types of bacteria that have formed a symbiotic relationship with certain beans and legumes. Using a complex set of enzymes, these bacteria are able to break the nitrogen bonds, making it available to plants at their roots.7
7 Today, approximately 90 million to 120 million metric tons of nitrogen in our food system comes from natural processes, such as nitrogen- fixing bacteria and lightning strikes.
Nitrogen in the air is considered “unusable” because the molecule N2 consists of two super-tightly bound nitrogen atoms, one of the strongest bonds in nature. The atoms are locked together so securely, it takes an immense amount of energy—in the order of 1000°C—to tear them apart. So while we can breathe in and exhale atmospheric nitrogen, in this form it is also inert and cannot be absorbed into our bodies. Instead, the nitrogen that makes up our blood, skin, and hair comes from the food we eat. And it is essential. Nitrogen is found in every gene and every protein in living things. We couldn’t exist without it, because it serves as the atomic backbone of our DNA.
The genius of the Haber-Bosch process was that it could “mine” nitrogen right from the air. Named after Fritz Haber, the scientist who invented it, and Carl Bosch, the engineer who industrialized it, the invention promised the world unlimited fertilizer. Finally, a source had been found that would not run out, because atmospheric nitrogen was everywhere. But while this “synthetic manure” relied on clever chemistry, it was not very simple to make. To scale the process up for mass production meant the Germans now faced another huge challenge: They had to build the world’s largest machine.
8 It was twice the size of the first pilot plant, at Oppau, which exploded, killing 600 people and injuring 2,000 after the fertilizer in a storage silo caked together. Mixed in with sodium nitrate that was being manufactured for gunpowder, the combination had proved unstable, triggering a blast that is still recognized as one of the worst industrial accidents in history. Today, the Leuna works covers 13 square kilometres.
Covering almost eight square kilometers, the factory they used, in Leuna, Germany, was “the size of a small city.”8 It housed massive compressors able to subject gases to 200 atmospheres of pressure, about the same amount of pressure, as Thomas Hager writes in The Alchemy of Air, necessary to “crush a modern submarine.” The process itself is not too complex: Nitrogen and hydrogen gases are heated to a high temperature and then circulated over an iron catalyst,9 which lowers the energy threshold of the reaction.
The gas mixture is then put under so much pressure and heat that the hydrogen and nitrogen atoms crack and form a new bond, coming out of the machine on the other side as liquefied ammonia, or NH3. Taking nitrogen from the air, Haber and Bosch had created a whole new way to feed plants. As the Germans said, it was Brot aus Luft. They were getting “bread from air.”
Today, factories all around the world use the Haber-Bosch process to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. In 2016, they produced 146 million metric tons. And as the human population grows, the demand rises. In fact, the production of synthetic nitrogen and the rise in population are intimately linked. If you’ve ever wondered how the human population jumped in a single century from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to over 7.6 billion today, it is because we no longer use manure to grow food. This form of fixed nitrogen, in combination with the development of pesticides and new crop varieties, brought in what’s known as the green revolution. Humans had tamed the earth, and their numbers exploded as a result. We could feed ourselves in a whole new way, by turning air into food with the use of synthetic fertilizer.
But there is one more Matrix pin-drop: Because half of the nitrogen in our food chain is now synthetically made, half of the nitrogen in your DNA comes from a Haber-Bosch factory.
Excerpted from The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. Copyright © 2019 by Ziya Tong. Published by Allen Lane an imprint of Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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