I used to get offended when I visited an Indian community with visible litter. “Why is there so much trash lying around?” I wondered. “Aren’t these people supposed to be in touch with nature?” I grew up with the Keep America Beautiful ad featuring the crying Indian, so I expected better.
Things aren’t always what they seem, though. That crying Indian? He was an Italian-American actor. And that garbage? It may be unsightly, but it’s usually not particularly dangerous to humans or other living things. Some of it is even food and habitat for small creatures. Pick up a discarded can from a forest floor or streambed and you’ll usually find something living inside it.
I’m not defending littering—or the poverty that can contribute to it in places where sanitation services are either prohibitively expensive or unavailable, including plenty of non-Indian rural communities. But at least some people have the guts to face their own mess, right in their own backyard. Middle-class suburbanites, on the other hand, can’t stand the sight of their own waste products. They don’t even want lawn clippings lying around in plain sight, let alone poopy diapers and greasy food wrappers.
To keep everything nice and tidy, those higher up the socioeconomic ladder—with the full support of governments and businesses—like to put waste “away.” They dump it down pipes or send it on trucks and trains and barges, often over distances of hundreds of miles, to bury it in big holes in the ground. That’s how we got Fresh Kills, the New York City landfill that is almost three times the size of Central Park. It’s how we got the Love Canal disaster in upstate New York, where a chemical company buried 21,000 tons of toxic waste and caused a public health crisis uncovered in the 1970s. In the decades since that textbook case, government officials have allowed US companies—many in the chemical, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries—to drill more than 680,000 waste wells and inject more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquids into the ground, the investigative news organization ProPublica reported last year. This is material that no company would be allowed to dump directly onto the ground or into a river, but it’s considered perfectly acceptable to put it underground.
Burial has long been used for nuclear waste, too. That’s how we got underground tanks that may be leaking “screaming hot” radioactive material at the Hanford nuclear site in eastern Washington. It’s why so many people still think it’s a good idea to stash high-level nuclear waste deep beneath Yucca Mountain in Nevada. As if this stuff is gone once it’s invisible.
But it’s not just waste generated when nuclear energy is produced; subterranean disposal is also the end point of other fuel cycles. Oil and gas companies put their spent fracking fluids underground—until recently, without any requirement to disclose the ingredients of these chemical cocktails. The same industry that brings us climate-altering fossil fuels also perpetuates the myth of an easy fix, promoting carbon capture and storage in underground geological formations. (But only after the industry runs out of space to dump carbon into the atmosphere and oceans.)
Most indigenous people, though, are wise to the fact that earth is an integral part of the planet we call Earth—not a separate world that can safely act as a storage unit for all our crap. Maybe that's why in some indigenous communities, trash is lying around in plain sight. There is no "away" to put it in.
The notion that waste can be safely entombed in rock and soil rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the world beneath our feet. That world, which scientists refer to as the “geosphere,” is neither static nor dead. It holds most of our freshwater supply. The soil alone contains almost one-third of all living organisms. “Fossil” fuels would not even exist were it not for the microbes in the geosphere, which break down dead plants and animals over millions of years and turn them into coal and oil.
In the upper layer of the geosphere are termites, fungi, mites, gophers, and other organisms. But it’s quite possible that life forms may be found “more than 10 kilometers, maybe 20” underground, according to Robert Hazen, head of the Deep Carbon Observatory. “It’s an amazing new world,” Hazen told Reuters in March. Tiny worms and “zombie microbes” that move at far less than a snail’s pace have already been exhumed from the depths of this realm, which may have been the cradle of life on Earth. But humans have even less appreciation for this hidden world than for the biological treasures just outside their doors.
Shipping nuclear and chemical waste to distant underground disposal facilities keeps the “back end” out of sight and out of mind. It facilitates denial about the creation of this mess. Perhaps communities would take better care of their waste if they kept it visible. That could make it more vulnerable to terrorists who want to use toxic materials as weapons, but it would also make it easier to detect leaks and other signs of trouble. For example, dry cask storage of spent fuel at nuclear power plants, in which waste is stowed in above-ground vaults, forces a community to see the consequences of energy production and take a certain amount of responsibility for them. Keeping America beautiful in the 21st century must be more than cosmetic. It should extend deep below the Earth’s skin, like life itself. The underworld and the aboveground world are in constant contact, and things move between these worlds more easily than many people realize.
A few days ago I was walking with my husband through the field behind our home in rural Washington when we came upon a matchbook-size piece of curved glass glinting in the middle of the path, and nearby we found a half-dozen other shards of various sizes—some brown, some clear. They had appeared suddenly in a place we hadn't seen them a few days earlier, without leaving any noticeable exit wound in the earth. We believe it must be a spot where someone who lived here long before us consigned household trash to a shallow grave, and that sudden freezes have heaved up the broken jars and rusted cans. We put them in our pockets and carried them back to the garbage can on our porch. Now they are once again out of sight.