We all know that littering is bad, but even properly throwing something "away" still leaves all of that garbage piled up somewhere on the planet. It will sit there indefinitely, taking up space and leeching toxins into the environment. One of the most common proposals for getting rid of this waste once and for all is to pack it in a rocket and send it toward the Sun.
There's no denying that something needs to be done about our garbage problem. Sending it to the Sun seems like a good way to incinerate everything without having to deal with the resulting ash and smog. But how feasible is it really?
Let's take a look at the math (I know, I know. Bear with me.):
People around the world add 1.3 billion tons of trash to landfills each year. Currently, it costs about $10,000 to launch one pound of cargo out of our atmosphere.
1.3 billion tons = 2.6 trillion pounds
2.6 trillion pounds of garbage x $10,000 per pound = $26 quadrillion dollars to launch one year's worth of garbage.
Considering the GDP of the United States is just shy of $18 trillion, it is mind-bogglingly unrealistic to blast our landfill problems to the Sun.
OK, so maybe the Sun isn't an ideal solution for regular garbage, but what about really hazardous materials, like nuclear waste? The cost would certainly be a lot easier to justify with something like that, right?
In the United States alone, there is enough nuclear waste to cover a football field to a depth of 21 feet and would cost about $1.5 trillion to launch, using the numbers from before.
Since the 1950s, this waste has been stored in underground containers that were only meant to be a temporary solution. These spent materials are still radioactive and will continue to be for thousands of years. It seems like the best course of action would be to get it off our planet entirely.
But as MinutePhysics explains, sending nuclear waste to the Sun is not practical, even if money was no object.
Check out how gravity makes sending things to the Sun really difficult here:
If sending trash to the Sun is out, what about simply sending it out into the abyss of space? We still have the problem with launches being expensive and dangerous, but there's also a chance it could collide with something unintended like an asteroid and have unexpected consequences.
The Delta IV Heavy rocket can only transport about 63,000 pounds of cargo to Low Earth Orbit at once, meaning we'd need close to 2,500 rockets to get rid of it all. Given that space is really difficult and about 5% of all rocket launches fail, we could reasonably expect 125 massive explosions of nuclear waste, which would be catastrophic.
(Also, sending rockets full of radioactive material out into the Universe is no way to make friends with aliens.)
For now, it looks like our best course of action for solving our garbage problem is simply to create less waste to begin with.
Cover image: NASA