What if we thrwew all our garbage into space?

Let’s say that the global warmim problem gets way out of hand and we have to get rid of all the world’s landfills, trash, dangerous chemicals and nuclear waste. We build gigantic rockets that can fly free out of earth’s sphere of influence and head into the sun to be incinerated. The earth would certainly lose some of its mass - rockets, billions of tons of waste, etc etc etc. Would that in any way influence on earth’s rotation, given the reduction in our mass?

Since it currently costs about $10,000 to put a pound of material into orbit, let alone throw it outside Earth’s gravity well, let’s just say that we could easily bankrupt the entire planet even attempting this. So no, this is not even remotely a plausible idea.

Then we possibly end up with the Futurama scenario of this big ball of garbage eventually circling around to take out the Earth.

They had an episode of the SuperFriends where this is how they cleaned up an alien world (by directing all of the pollution and trash into the planet’s star).

Unfortunately, that was make believe; and so is thinking that space would ever be a good place to dump waste.

Global warming isn’t really an issue of having a lot of garbage lying around.

The root of your question is a misunderstanding that is easy to make. Consumer societies like the USA produce incredible volumes of garbage that piles up somewhere. Common sense tells you it ought to “fill up” the planet.

In reality, though, every last bit of those consumer products came either from

  1. The ground, in the form of hydrocarbons or minerals
  2. The air, in the form of CO2 going to plant products. We can ignore #2 since we are injecting more C02 than we are taking out.

This means that when you dump the garbage in the landfill, you are just completing the cycle. You have mines in one place, and big landfills somewhere else. If you were really industrious, you could turn open pit mines into a landfill for a net 0 change.

The only reason it even becomes a problem is near mega-cities with lots of government regulations, it becomes problematic to actually find usable landfill space located near the city. As I understand it, this is somewhat of a problem in NYC. However, this is only a paper problem created by bureaucracy.

If the current trend were to continue, at some far future date, the earth will be stripped of usable metals and rare earth elements, with all this materials in landfills instead. At some “equilibrium point”, it will be cheaper to mine old landfills than low concentration deposits deep in the ground.

Anyways, it’s a minor problem and nothing to worry about. (compared to much more real threats like a runaway self-amplifying greenhouse effect or disease outbreaks, etc)

I see it hasn’t been directly addressed yet, but tossing things into the sun is also not plausible. It’s a matter of relatively simple orbital mechanics (it actually IS rocket science!) to show it would require an incredible amount of energy to do this.

It would be much easier to toss trash entirely out of the solar system than into the sun. And even that would be harder than just getting it out of earth orbit (but still hanging around the solar system). And simple earth orbit is expensive enough for stuff we want up there, much less garbage.

The other problem is that, somewhat counterintuitively, sending stuff towards the Sun is incredibly difficult and requires massive amounts of energy. Stranger on a Train, an actual “Rocket Scientist” explained it in a very sensible manner, that I cannot simply state, except it takes a metric butt load more energy to hit the Sun than it takes to leave Earth orbit due to Angular momentum relative to the Sun itself.*

*Any mistake in that is my own not Strangers, geez I hope I got this right.



Not that it would be plausible in the least, butI think it could be done, but it would be tricky the same way we did Mercury MESSENGER. We had to launch it out of Earth’s gravity well, but then slow it down to orbit Mercury. The way we did it was with a number of circuitous ‘deep space maneuvers’ sending it ahead of Venus and back around to Earth–but ahead of them, so that they would tug on it and slow it down. That’s whey it took like five or six years for MESSENGER to arrive in orbit when Mercury is relatvely close.

Yeah, you can use convoluted orbits like that to reach pretty much everywhere. The real hurdle is in getting out to about the distance of the Moon for the first slingshot of the series.

emphasis mine

While I agree with much of your post, this part struck me as incorrect. It is a real problem created by the fact that human beings do not like to live around their own waste. There are appearance, smell, insect, and groundwater contamination issues, even with modern landfills.


But I would also wonder if you have a city surrounded by sprawling suburbs, doesn’t the cost (fuel, labor, wear-and-tear to roads and trucks) of hauling the garbage one truckload at a time to a distant landfill also figure into the equation?

To be fair to the OP, I don’t think anyone has actually answered the question posed. I’m assuming the garbage bit is just a motivating scenario for the real question:

The answer is going to be: it depends.

It depends upon how you accelerate the mass off the earth. If you just magic the mass away from the surface of the Earth, taking off a thin even layer, the answer is that nothing will change. If you took the mass out deep down, and then the Earth settled to a smaller radius, the Earth’s rotation would accelerate.

If you use rockets, you may be adding or subtracting momentum from the Earth, depending upon which way the rockets face whilst they are in the atmosphere. In general you try to go straight up until you are out of the thick atmosphere, and then turn to the direction that uses the Earth’s rotation to help you get orbital speed. That would end up slowing the Earth down an astonishingly small amount.

You could use a rail gun to accelerate the garbage into space from the surface, again depending upon which way you face the gun will govern what happens. Going with the Earth’s rotation would again be slowing it down.

In reality there is not a chance you could ever manage to accelerate enough garbage off the planet to make even a nanosecond change in the orbital period. And other effects due to unevenness in the Earth itself will totally swamp out any such change. But in principle, the change exists.

Considering the fact that even attempting such a preposterous undertaking would bankrupt the global economy to the extent that every single man, woman, and child on Earth would be reducing to living the life of a sidewalk squatter in Calcutta, who would even care anymore? And while we’re on the subject, why all this antipathy toward something as relatively innocuous and intrinsically valuable as garbage? You can do all sorts of neat and beneficial thing with trash. And it keeps them Joisey boys happy and employed.

It’s not quite that bad. There are methods of propulsion that cost a lot less than $10,000/Kg. There are several methods where the primary cost is electricity to provide the energy needed for orbit. However, even those methods eat somewhere around $100 worth of electricity per kilogram…

Yes, that ‘garbage’ is (or will be eventually) a very valuable source or ‘raw’ materials.

I believe your “equilibrium point” has already been reached for one material: copper – more copper is obtained by recycling than is obtained by mining it from the earth. And that was years ago – I heard that the largest copper ‘mine’ in the world was actually the Bell phone system, in that they had a box in every truck where the telephone techs tossed all the excess wire they cut off while working, and that was collected back at the plant and recycled (though that word was hardly known back then).

I suspect that aluminum is also near that point, since it is so expensive to refine from mined ore via electrical smelting). I heard a story )possibly true) about a smart land owner who got rich from this: back when a per-can deposit was introduced in his state, there was no great market for recycled aluminum cans. So he bid on buying them from the state collection points, had them hauled to his vacant land and dumped in his landfill. Cheap to haul, in those days of low diesel prices, and cheap to maintain the landfill, with only aluminum cans, no rotting, smelly garbage. Years later, when the price of aluminum was much higher, he easily dug up a very rich supply of ‘ore’ from his landfill.

I expect sometime in the future that some of the most valuable ‘mines’ will be on the sites of old garbage dumps.

Five words into the OP and global warming is mentioned. When coming up with the proposal, did anyone consider how making all these rockets would accelerate that problem? Even using a mass driver requires electricity and I doubt it’s all coming from solar and wind.

I’ve never understood this whole “bankrupt the world” thing. It’s not like we’d be paying Martians to take the trash away, so the money spent wouldn’t be leaving the world economy. Surely if we set everybody to the task of firing rubbish into space, we could reduce global unemployment to zero! :smiley:

It’s pretty bad. The EPA estimates that Americans alone were producing 1.35 billion pounds (about 612 million kilograms) of garbage every day, in 2008. That’s not counting the rest of the world!

Not only is this not economically feasible, burning that much rocket fuel would surely only add to the warming problem (not that trash causes it).

“Launching all of humanity (total weight: around 400 million tons) would therefore take tens of trillions of tons of fuel.” Using your EPA number, the trash produced by the US in one year is about 60% of the total weight of humanity. And as you note, this disregards the trash produced by the rest of the world.

Let’s pretend it was cost-effective and made sense to launch our garbage into space, for just a minute here.

Don’t you think the eternally orbiting ring of garbage around the planet wreak havoc with satellites? Did you not see Gravity? How you gonna launch anything else off the planet – like a space shuttle or a space station (not that we’re really doing much with all that anymore) without crashing into garbage and literally trashing your rocket/vehicle? Once it’s in space, it’s not going to just disappear. What happens when the orbit destabilizes and large bits of garbage come crashing down on the planet? Were you alive when SkyLabfell?