Expel all the trash to space!


So, I was at school today (high school, 1st semester) in environmental systems class, discussing trash and the way it’s handled, when this smartass girl (who is a completely blind believer of the bible, therefore ignorant) proposed a seemingly perfect way to dispose of ALL trash on Earth: Expel it all to space!!! Now I had to keep calm as I’ve gotten in deep shit for telling other people (even teachers) how horribly wrong they are, and I had been doing good for the last half year, but oh lord, it just hurt me so bad to see all the class cheering at her for such a wonderful idea, and I told her, loudly, that her idea was extremely stupid. She proceeded to tell me that it was a really good way to get rid of trash in ALL of the Earth, and asked me why I thought it was a stupid idea. Naturally, the first argument I gave her was that it would be expensive as hell, to which she replied that any cost would be worth our lives. Didn’t get to tell her that the amounts of trash that are produced in a day couldn’t be carried in space shuttles (don’t know exact numbers) but I think that one space shuttle would be enough for about 100 people’s trash, daily, because the teacher interrupted us.

Sadly, she keeps on thinking she won the argument because “any cost is worth our lives”, but this, this is… Really, wow, almost beats the other girl who asked if the sea was made of whale semen, or the guy who asked how dinosaurs could exist if the planet had only existed for 2,000 years which is the time that has passed since Jesus was born.

All this, is a true story, none of it is made up.

So, What do you think? What would you have said to that girl? Sometimes I just go to sleep in class when I heavily disagree with what’s being taught or discussed at class.

Topic in general: Ignorance at high school after entire lives of private schooling.*
*Private catholic schooling, most of them.

It’s not just the cost – it’s the amount of fuel that would be required. You could ask her where all that fuel would come from.

Fuel, time, people required to do so, space, everything that she didn’t consider…

To be honest, I created this topic mainly to share with you guys, but I hope this can turn into a good discussion.

If space travel was cheap enough to use it to take out the trash, we’d have colonies on Mars and Europa by now.

It would be hideously expensive and resource intensive. Given that we are talking about megatons or even gigatons of waste, about the only way within our technological limits I could see us even beginning to make a dent would be to build literal fleets of Orion nuclear bomb propelled craft to haul it all into space. Which probably still wouldn’t be enough, and would fill the atmosphere with radioactive fallout.

On top of that, even if we could it would be a bad idea. “Trash” is generally composed of important or valuable substances that are in an inconvenient spot or hard to extract form; if we somehow made it vanish we’d be sucking the planet dry of substances that would otherwise go back into biological & other cycles.

Every single time you teach waste disposal and middle- or high-school level one kid will ask that question. Always.

The costs invilved in space fligth are not something most people really know. Once you explain the cost and pollution the kid sees the problem and learning has happened.

Well, since all the key points have been covered (i.e. it’s a bad idea because not only is it ridiculously expensive to get anything into space, let alone ‘trash’, but as Der Trihs points out a lot of that stuff is pretty valuable and recyclable, so you don’t want to toss it where you can never get to it again):

Besides possibly a derisive laugh? Nothing. Some ignorance simply can’t be fought and, generally, crazy people should be left to their own devices. Basically, if at this point someone doesn’t know how expensive it is to put even a satellite into orbit (our GPS system is getting to the critical point because it’s so expensive to toss replacements up there…and that’s something a large percentage of the population uses on a regular basis) then they are probably a few lobsters short of a bushel…


So, for starters, how much does it cost to get stuff into orbit?

A little Googling indicates that the new Falcon Heavy rocket, being developed by SpaceX, is supposed to be have a per-pound cost-to-orbit of around $1000 (which would apparently be a lower cost than anything currently available). That’s $1000 for one pound of trash.

According to this source, the average American produces 5.1 pounds of trash per day. So, our current technology would mean it’d cost at least $5,100 just to put your dippy classmate’s trash from just today into space. Let’s assume that it’s just her and her parents in her household. Three people’s trash for a week is about 107 pounds – to take her family’s trash to space this week would be at least $107,000.

And that’s about an order of magnitude cheaper than it would cost, say, NASA to launch it (and that rocket is still in development IIRC…it’s not in production yet). From memory, the Shuttle cost about $10k/pound to get something into orbit.


Perhaps calling someone stupid is counter-productive, as is displaying arrogance. (Even if the person, like Trash Girl, has an extremely ill-conceived notion.)

I can be cranky sometimes, but generally I’ll pretend to give a stupid idea serious thought and then ask questions to point out the problem. It doesn’t work, of course; but it doesn’t turn the person off immediately.

I’d query whether the trash produced by the production necessary to get a pound of trash into space would be more or less than one pound. My guess is more. In other words, I think the net result of the program would be more trash than you started with.

Good point (and I wasn’t clear enough about that fact in my post). It was one of the first links I could find via Google, and suggested what the current (or near-future) lowest-cost option for orbit would be. The price today is undoubtedly still somewhere north of $1000 per pound.

I enjoyed this OP. I had a chuckle. Not many high schoolers post on the Dope like that.

Sometimes I show my students photos of trash in space and they are utterly horrified. It’s weird - I catch them littering outside on occasion, but LITTERING IN SPACE? NOOO!

On the other hand, if households were charged $1,000 for each pound of trash that they put out, you might see “reduce, recycle, reuse” being taken rather more seriously :slight_smile:

The correct answer to your question - what you should have said to that girl…

“Do you want to go out on the weekend?”

Or, it could be a fun math exercise. Take it into the school. Do a project entitled “Sending our garbage to space: Good idea or idiotic point?”
If we assume that you don’t actually need the shuttle, and are just lifting a giant bag of garbage into space… The liquid fuel tank weighs 1.6 million pounds. The two solid fuel boosters carry 1 million pounds of propellant each. That’s 3.6 million pounds of propellant to boost 240,000 pounds (shuttle weight) into low earth orbit.

Estimates are that each person in the US creates 4 pounds of solid trash per day. That’s 1.2 billion pounds each and every day.

To fire that up into space would require the equivalent of 5,000 shuttle launches each and every day. 1.8 million shuttle launches each year. At a cost of 450 million/launch, that would be a cost of 810 Trillion dollars/year or over 200 times the countries entire Federal budget.

And this is to get the garbage to low earth orbit, where it will make space travel impossible, and destroy all of our communications satellites. Good one.

Well, all of that (and the considerable pollution generated by so many rockets fired) could be solved by a space elevator which would drastically cut the per-unit-of-mass costs of flinging shit space-high… but of course, then all of the shit would simply end up in near orbit, which has its own set of problems. Like permanent obstruction of the Sun, a constant rain of filth dropping back down should they lose velocity for any reason, random junk busting up satellites in geosync (which already happens with what little debris we have up there), little things like that.

Besides, even assuming we just flung it all at escape velocity (possibly by powering our rockets by the only inexhaustible and 100% clean energy source - prayer !), the trash would just keep on keeping on until it lands somewhere. Do we really want to abiogenesisize some planet on the other side of the galaxy with bacteria feeding on our toxic waste ? Can somebody say meteor-flinging bug race ?! Because I saw that movie.
More importantly perhaps, do we want our first contact with some other civilization on the other side of the galaxy to be high-speed giant containers of toxic waste ?

Another way to put this is that one neighborhood trash truck carries about 12 tons of trash. The biggest US rocket now in use is the Delta IV Heavy, which can launch 25 tons or so into low earth orbit.

One Delta IV Heavy costs well in excess of $300 million. To launch two truck’s worth of garbage into space. Not even deep space.

Suppose we were able to fling the trash into the sun? Irrespective of the cost issue, would that be an acceptable and permanent way of disposing of things? Seems to me that a star is the ultimate trash furnace.

A simple way of looking at it: every rocket (except for the retired Shuttle) has most of its structure fall off in flight due to staging. It comes back to Earth and falls into the ocean as trash. So even discounting the other costs, you’re going to produce around 10 pounds of trash on Earth for every one that you send to orbit.

Actually if we could build one you could launch stuff into deep space for little cost (beyond whatever it cost to build the thing in the first place). You just extend the cable out past geosynchonous orbit and let whatever you are planning to launch slide down the cable; the Earth’s own rotation will fling it away when it reaches the end of the tether. IIRC if it extends as far “up” as the lower half of the cable extends down you can launch something out to the orbit of Saturn.

It would be permanent; it’s also the most difficult spot to reach in the Solar System since you need to first counteract Earth’s own velocity.