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Trash Talk: How Our Waste Impacts Our Environment and Health

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

Trash impacts our environment in ways we can see, but also on a microscopic level and even in ways we do not fully understand yet. For that reason, research related to waste is some of the most interesting and rife with possibility for new discovery.

“Unless we understand this whole process, there’s no way we can have effective mitigation efforts. It’s very important to understand the basic science of that state,” said LSU Chemical Engineering Professor Bhuvnesh Bharti, during an interview I conducted with him for an article published by WAFB.

A grant provided by the National Science Foundation of Chemistry Division is fueling the research being done by Professor Bharti and his team. It’s focused on the presence of microplastics in the air we breathe.

First, some context. What is microplastic? The short answer is exactly what the name suggests - small amounts of plastic. When we’re talking about airborne plastic, we’re talking about microscopic particles.

The research started just before the pandemic. As of August 2021, the progress report on the research was showing some troubling results.

“We learned that we know less than we thought,” Bharti said bluntly.

The study of microplastic is a relatively new field. It was first discovered back in the 1970s. Much of the research until recent years has focused on the impact of microplastic on marine life. Just a few years ago, microplastic was found to be raining down on a pristine part of France’s Pyrenees mountains, leaving scientists to ask, “how the heck did it get there?”

We know where all of these plastic particles are showing up, but understanding exactly how it’s impacting human health, that’s another question.

Lab research released in March 2021 shows that microplastics can cause damage to human cells. It doesn’t kill the cells, but it does make them behave in an abnormal way. If you want to know specifically how that impacts people, you’ll be hard-pressed to get a solid answer. The reason goes back to what Professor Bharti said, “we know less than we thought.”

The root problem that will need to be addressed is to find a balance between the usefulness plastic has on everyday life, versus the potential harm it has on the environment and even our health. For that reason, much effort has been focused on the creation of materials that behave like plastic, but are derived from biodegradable materials.

As we all know, there are a lot more forms of trash out there than just plastic. One of the largest and ugliest offenders we see on a daily basis is waste tires. In this case, the root problem of disposal seems to be a combination of too many cars on the road and not enough ways to properly dispose of the mess they create.

When you go to get new tires put on your car, you’ll see a fee for disposing of your old tires. That fee then goes to the waste tire fund, which is used by the state to properly dispose of tires.

There are six licensed tire processors in the state. They go to the businesses and pick up the tires and then properly dispose of them. Although this seems like a fairly cut-and-dry process, not every business wants to go through the legal channels to get rid of the tires. That’s when you end up with piles of tires in wooded areas, along the railroad tracks, or in an abandoned lot.

Tires are composed of the following materials:

  • 19% Natural rubber, usually from trees in Southeast Asia

  • 38% Synthetic ­rubber (butadiene, styrene, halobutyl rubber) and additives, to prevent damage from ozone and oxygen, and to promote curing

  • 4% Synthetic-­polymer fabric belts (nylon, rayon, and aramid), for reinforcement

  • 12% Wire (high-carbon steel), for ­more reinforcement

  • 26% Fillers (carbon black, silica)

Many of these elements are toxic when burned and they also cause problems as they degrade and are absorbed into the environment. That’s why you’re not supposed to use rubber mulch created from tires on areas where you have edible plants.

In cities, waste tires are most problematic for their effectiveness at being breeding grounds for mosquitos. Another LSU study focused on this particular issue and used the Garden District and the Old South neighborhood as its testing ground.

The two neighborhoods, though adjacent, are on opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum. Both are comprised of historic homes passed down from one generation to the next. However, the Old South neighborhood became disinvested after the construction of the interstate in the 1960s.

Researchers found there to be a significantly higher number of adult and larvae Asian tiger mosquitos in the Old South neighborhood. This particular mosquito is known for carrying West Nile Virus and for transmitting heartworms to pets.

Tire dumps are located all along the railroad track, which splits the center of the Old South neighborhood. Sometimes hundreds of tires are located in the three-mile stretch that encompasses the area. Getting that many tires removed is a challenge.

At present, the city can fine property owners for blight. The property owner’s only way to remove the tires is to take them to a nearby waste tire processing facility. The closest one is located in Port Allen.

An additional challenge for the property owner is that the processing facility will only accept five tires a day per individual. The same rule applies for Hazardous Materials Collection days. The purpose is to prevent businesses from sidestepping the disposal fees.

When you see trash on the side of the road, the reason for it is likely a lot bigger than just someone being lazy and tossing something on the ground. Although that certainly happens, it’s not the only reason.

Just like microplastic research, our understanding of the impact waste has on our environment and our society is still being discovered. While we seek to understand more, we can all help out in some of the following ways:

  1. Educate yourself on the products you’re purchasing. A large portion of the microplastic in our water comes from synthetic fibers in our clothing, which are shed during the washing process. Purchasing clothing made from natural fibers and reducing the number of times you wash clothing that has synthetic fibers will go a long way to reducing microplastic particles in our waterways.

  2. Look for alternatives. Before you use plastic, is there an alternative? Rather than using a plastic bag for your leftovers, consider keeping empty jars and using those instead. It’s cheaper and better for the environment.

  3. Pick up trash you see on the road. This is a little step we can all take to keep our areas free of trash. But don’t limit yourself to your neighborhood. Try going to different spots and just picking up one bag of trash. Sadly, it will probably not take too long.

  4. Properly bag your trash. Much of the trash that ends up on the roads comes off the waste removal trucks. When you place loose trash in a trash can, it can fly out the back or the top of the removal trucks.

  5. Avoid creating trash in the first place! The less trash you create, the less there will be to deal with.

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