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5 Bold Proposals For Cleaning Up Space Junk

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NASA

Since the Russians put Sputnik in orbit in 1957, a heavy amount of space junk, from old satellites to nuts and bolts, has clogged up the orbit around Earth; as of February 2011, there were 10 million pieces of man-made debris in space, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. This puts us in real danger of something scientists call the Kessler Syndrome: Low Earth orbit becomes so crowded with artifical satellites and other trash that collisions occur, generating more pieces of debris that will in turn cause more collisions, creating a domino effect that could hinder space exploration. 

Larger pieces of space junk can be tracked and sometimes avoided—the International Space Station (ISS) can change orbit to get around debris—but even smaller pieces, which are eventually pulled into Earth's atmosphere and burn up, are dangerous when moving at these speeds in space. According to Popular Mechanics, a paint chip moving at hypervelocity is capable of punching a 0.025 centimeter hole in a U.S. satellite

Scientists are seeing evidence of the Kessler Syndrome—orbital debris is on track to triple by 2030—and are on the hunt for solutions to our space junk problem. Various nations have put forward clean-up plans that range from practical to Star Trek levels of ambition. Here are five ideas.

1. Robots

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Defense Department that develops and funds technology used by the military, plans to refurbish and recycle lifeless satellites that are floating around in space—with robots.

DARPA’s Phoenix program hopes to scavenge the space debris by using robots that tag along on commercial satellite launches and attach themselves to defunct satellites. From there, the robots will collect parts, particularly antennas, which can be re-used to craft a communications network for the military at low cost.

Here’s how they’re hoping it will work: Nanosatellites, known as a satlets, will be carried in PODS (Payload Orbital Delivery System) that will piggyback into space on a larger commercial satellite being sent into orbit. Once in space, the PODS would rendezvous with another type of salvaging spacecraft (NASA calls this a “tender”) launched into orbit, that will then navigate it to the dead satellite. The tender and PODS stay together from then on. This is when the robot will go to work, using robotic arms to remove an antenna and installing the satlets into the antenna. This creates the new communications network.

The agency is planning the first Phoenix mission for 2015 and is targeting 140 dead satellites for repurposing.

2. Kamikaze Space Janitors

CleanSpaceOne—a proposed satellite from scientists in Switzerland—will go into space as a single-capture mission, grabbing debris and heading back to Earth’s atmosphere, where both the CleanSpaceOne and its collection will burn up on re-entry. Switzerland will build many of the CleanSpaceOne satellites to send into space one after the other. The first mission is one of nostalgia: The space janitor will retrieve the first satellite Switzerland ever launched, Swisscube.

In a video, the director of the Swiss Space Center, Volker Gass, said the amount of space junk is getting out of hand. “Something has to be done about this problem. Collisions between satellite and debris are bound to happen. There’s going to be an avalanche effect, and more satellites are going to be destroyed,” Gass said.

This big clean-up plan is also set to launch in 2015.

3. Fishing Nets

In 2011, it was reported that The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency teamed up with Nitto Seimo, a manufacturer of fishing nets, to build and deploy a giant net that will sweep up space junk in Earth’s orbit.

It won’t be bringing the mess back to Earth, though. The plan is to stretch the thin metal net into space, collecting waste as it moves along for several weeks. After the journey, an electric charge to the net will draw it back toward Earth, burning up both the net and its contents upon entering the atmosphere. (Details for how the net will be guided to gather trash and avoid things we might actually want in orbit are not available.)

Nitto Seimo has spent six years developing the net, which sounds like something out of science fiction.

4. Galactic Garbage “Trucks”

The European Space Agency has a plan, too. Their initiative just isn’t as far-fetched as the others.

According to the ESA, space junk has increased by 50 percent in the past five years, and they’re afraid of future collisions—those by debris alone and those between debris and a working satellite or active mission. The agency wants to tackle the problem directly by sending out missions dedicated to removing litter.

In 2015, the ESA has plans to launch ATVs (Automated Transfer Vehicles), which are unmanned cargo freighters equipped with optical sensors that could be able to detect orbiting trash, gather it, and return it to Earth.

5. Lasers

NASA just wants to use lasers. But they don’t want to zap the garbage and destroy it—they want to nudge debris out of the way.

The debris in space moves at incredibly fast speeds and is extremely dangerous to shuttles, the space station, and satellites. The agency wants to avoid using a laser that would explode any objects, which would only create a bigger mess of smaller (and therefore harder to track) pieces.

Ideally, the laser—which would cost an relatively inexpensive $1 million—would be mounted on one of Earth’s poles, where the atmosphere is thinner. During a launch or to avoid a collision, NASA would send pulses of photo pressure to gently prod objects out of the way.

So far, NASA has only floated this idea; actually building the laser would require international cooperation.

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25 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle
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According to the EPA, Americans generate 254 million tons of waste each year. Here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle.

1. DENTURES

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Grandpa's choppers may hold $25 worth of recyclable metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.

2. HOLIDAY LIGHTS

Bundle of holiday string lights

Got burnt out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected. (In 2011, the State of Minnesota collected and recycled around 100 tons of dead lights.)

3. SEX TOYS

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The first step in recycling your toy is to send it to a specialty processing plant, where it's sterilized and sorted. There, all "mechanical devices" are salvaged, refurbished, and resold. Silicone and rubber toys, on the other hand, are "ground up, mixed with a binding agent, and remolded into new toys," according to the aptly titled website, Sex Toy Recycling. Metals, plastics, and other leftovers retire from the pleasure industry and are recycled into conventional products.

4. HOTEL SOAP

Hotel bathroom counter with cups, shampoo, and soap

Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to less fortunate people across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.

5. MATTRESSES

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You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress can become a summer dress or even wallpaper.

6. COOKING OIL

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When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—approximately 47 percent of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, which may send the oil to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel. To see if there’s a collection point near you, check this website.

7. DIRTY DIAPERS

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The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.

8. CDS

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CDs are made of polycarbonate and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to The CD Recycling Center, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!

9. SHOES

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Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards. So far, Nike has shredded more than 28 million pairs of shoes.

10. SHEEP POOP

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Why turn sheep poop into fertilizer or manure when you can make it into an air freshener? The folks at Creative Paper Wales do that, plus more—they can transform sheep poop into birthday cards, wedding invitations, bookmarks, and A4 paper! Sheep dung brims with processed cellulose fiber. The poo can be sterilized in a 420 degree pressure cooker, which separates the fiber from a smelly brew of liquid fertilizer, allowing the fiber pulp to be collected and blended with other recycled pulps, creating tree-free paper.

11. TROPHIES

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Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies at recycling centers like Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.

12. HUMAN FAT (WARNING: ILLEGAL)

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If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "lipodiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.

13. ALUMINUM FOIL

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Foil is probably one of the most thrown away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100 percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).

14. CRAYONS

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Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 118,000 pounds of crayons.

15. DEAD PETS

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When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.

16. SHINGLES

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The EPA estimates that 11 million tons of shingles are disposed each year [PDF]. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.

17. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS

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You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to HIV victims around the world.

18. FISHING LINE

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Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.

19. WINE CORKS

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Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle and Yemm & Hart will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.

20. PANTYHOSE

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Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like No Nonsense save your old stockings by grinding them down and transforming them into park benches, playground equipment, carpets, and even toys.

21. TOOTHBRUSHES

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If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber!

22. TENNIS BALLS

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The company reBounces doesn’t really recycle tennis balls, it resurrects them. If you’ve got at least 200 balls sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls.

23. YOGA MATS

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Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops.

24. DEFUNCT CURRENCY

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All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? Ends up you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.

25. PET FUR

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All of the pet fur on your sweaters, your couches, and your carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP Oil Spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.

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A Portable Kit Relies on Everyday Items to Bring Toilets to Disaster Zones
Carl Court/Getty Images
Carl Court/Getty Images

If you look at the minimLET, you probably don't immediately think “toilet.” The kit, made by the Japanese design firm Nendo, consists of a piece of white, curved plastic, a sheet of fabric, a segmented aluminum pole, plastic bags, and tissue paper. But to survivors of natural disasters, the device may be the closest thing they get to an actual toilet while living in an emergency shelter.

As Co.Design reports, the minimLET addresses a major issue faced in disaster zones that often goes ignored: the lack of flushing toilets. Earthquakes and hurricanes can leave communities without power and clean drinking water for extended periods of time. They're also capable of destroying sewage systems. But because people can survive without private bathrooms, in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, the lack of toilets doesn't usually get top billing.

There are portable toilets designed for such situations, but most of them are big and bulky, making them hard to deliver to affected areas. In response to disasters like Japan's Tōhoku earthquake in 2011, Nendo devised a better solution: a portable, minimalist toilet that can be set up anywhere.

A plastic toilet seat stands on four aluminum legs.
Nendo

The minimLET toilet is compact enough to slide into a small bag, making it easy to transport and store. To set it up, you just need to secure the plastic seat to the four aluminum legs and attach a plastic bag underneath to act as the toilet bowl. The nylon cloth included in the kit works like a poncho to provide privacy in open areas.

The product is adaptable depending on the needs of the user. For added seclusion, you can also set the seat on plastic water bottles or metal cans weighted down with sand, allowing you to use the aluminum pipes as a tent pole instead of legs for the toilet. Then you can attach a cheap umbrella to the pole and drape the nylon cloth over it to form a makeshift outhouse, as you can see in the video below. The kit’s carrying case doubles as a waterproof pouch that can transport more than 4 gallons of liquid at a time.

That adaptability was a major goal for the design firm. “When living in evacuation shelters in contemporary urban spaces, various everyday items and waste materials are available" like umbrellas and 2-liter soda bottles, as Nendo writes on their website. "It was possible to appropriate such everyday items, due to the fact that these external dimensions, cap sizes, screw shapes, etc. are standardized to some extent to fit the shelves and vending machines in retail stores."

The minimLET is set to make its commercial debut in Japan sometime next year.

[h/t Co.Design]

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