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environment

What We Leave Behind

by Val Nolan

After work we dig out our rubber boots, pull on our gloves, and we go down to the river to haul up old bollards and dredge garbage out of the watercourse. At the weekends we cycle to the beach with friends. There we fill crates with empty soda bottles and deflated balloons and all the wreckage from a summer’s worth of barbecues and picnics. One year we spent our vacation high in the mountains, bagging up the abandoned tents and beer cans and excrement which obstructs every corner of the base camps. Another time we dove into the ocean to strain endless resin pellets and flip-flops and discarded toothbrushes from its soupy depths.  

Some days we pause to look down on our ruined world from the vantage of the Moon, from lunar toss zones marked by bleached white flags and strewn with preposterous golf balls, empty film magazines, old boots, and bags full of faeces and vomit. We pick our way through used urine collection systems cocked crooked in the dust. We collect wet-wipes abandoned to geological time. Then we gaze upwards again through the polarising filters of long-discarded cameras. We consider a Mars strewn with tattered Bigelow modules and deliberately de-orbited relays, deflated air-beds and sleeping bags frozen in contorted solitude, decommissioned science stations, twisted aerials, plastic cutlery, and equipment abandoned in position.

Even more waste floats in the Jovian cloudtops. Snack packets and candy wrappers and flimsy shopping bags taken wing on supersonic jet streams. Here the plastic yokes of six-packs entangle the smaller animals of this atmosphere, choking them, constraining their buoyancy sacs and causing them to fall far below the level at which they can be rescued, down into the dark where they are crushed into diamonds and then into dust. In the oceans of Europa too, all the strange amphipods and vast leviathans have ingested polystyrene beads and packing peanuts. Fibres and particles now riddle their hindguts and what passes for their intestines. We can no longer remove this material. It is in their blood the way it is in ours.

Even the rings of Saturn are strewn with trash. EVA tethers and pallet assemblies, florescent plastic wigs and human sanitary products. Below this vast unrecyclable arch, discarded fishing gear and lines and abandoned bait bags drift on the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan. There are forgotten baskets and beachballs and mannequin heads. There are swimming donuts and pool noodles. There are ghost nets so vast that they are visible from orbit. There are lone sandals or parasols or bucket-like shapes which no one can identify for sure. Everywhere there are plastic bags of all colours and dimensions bearing the logos of long dead corporations.

This far from the sun, anything photodegradable will last for thousands upon thousands of years. This leaves Neptune a microplastic smog which poisons the filter feeders who need its gasses to survive. On Triton we find continents of used stretch wrap shipped out from Earth to be disposed of in landfills on the edge of space. When we reach Pluto, we find whole regios blanketed by transverse dunes of coffee pods. We discover the coasts of its subsurface seas are buried in disintegrated barrels and fragmented salad domes and the cellulose acetate of a trillion cigarette filters. We weep at how its heart is forever clogged with plastic.

And so we work in teams with litter-pickers to gather what we can. Filling sacks and then upcycled transportation racks. Eventually gathering megatonnes of anthropogenic debris to form huge rubble-pile objects in the Kuiper Belt. We find old zero-g ballpoints and sex toys left behind by lonely astronauts. We find clouds of refuse ejected from interplanetary cruises. Beyond them again, banners and streamers discarded after music festivals and left drift through space like exhausted comets. Finally, at the edges of the termination shock, silent vuvuzelas tumbling end-over-end like the grand old ships in the science fiction we used to dream about.

Here we take a moment to affirm our resolve. Then we go on: outwards to stars circled by single-use planets where we retrieve thermoplastic frames thrown out by colonists who botched their settlement designs. We hold collections for used spacesuit components and old sun visors and bottle caps (always more bottle caps). We hold rallies to clean-up worlds unseen by human eyes and yet somehow strewn with human waste. We petition to outlaw autonomous self-replicators designed to transform whole solar systems into virgin polymers for weaving future habitats or clamshell packaging for burger cartons and descent stages.

We see that the interstellar medium is filled with swirling vortices of sippy cups and cracked shampoo bottles and the broken limbs of androids rendered obsolete by advances in synthetic biology. All we can do is keep gathering this trash. All we can do is keep rocketing home sledloads of anything that can be reused and consigning the rest to the solar incinerators. The work is difficult, but we know we can pace the leading edge of humanity’s colonial wave, right to the boundaries of the Great Galactic Garbage Patch. Dig out your rubber boots and pull on your gloves. Come and help us make this right.

~

Bio:

Val Nolan lectures on genre fiction and creative writing at Aberystwyth University. His stories have appeared in The Year’s Best Science FictionInterzoneUnidentified Funny Objects, and been shortlisted for the Sturgeon Award. His academic work has appeared in Science Fiction Studies and Foundation.