5 Ways Nature Thrives on Our Trash

From oil waste to a rain forest. The circle of life
5 Ways Nature Thrives on Our Trash

We’re not going to say garbage is good. It’s smelly and sticky, and the only people who love it are green hairy Muppets with poor interpersonal skills. But the good news is garbage isn’t always toxic. When we dump a bunch of our trash somewhere, that might not be the worst for nature. It might even be the best for nature. 

A Lush Forest Sprang Up from an Orange Peel Dump

At the start of the 1990s, a juice company had a huge orange tree plantation up against a protected conservation area in Costa Rica. Tree plantations, while literally green, are not generally considered great for natural biodiversity. The juicing factory also produced tons and tons of waste, consisting of tons and tons of orange peels. They had to dump these peels somewhere, and a scientist brokered a solution. What if they were to give up some of their land to the conservation area? Then, the stewards of that area would take all that waste off the company’s hands, for free.

orange peel


“Ooh, we’re going to make so much garnish out of this!”

The juicing company agreed, and the conservation area handled the waste, by dumping 12,000 tons of it right on the protected land. This lasted right up until someone sued, saying that this was a crooked deal to defile a national park. The Costa Rica Supreme Court now put an end to the project. 

So, this was some dirty scheme that was justly stopped, right? Not exactly. The party who sued wasn’t really someone concerned about a national park but a rival juice company wanting to mess with their competitor. And those tons of orange peels, though waste, weren’t really hurting the area. They were decaying and supplying nutrients. A decade and a half later, scientists surveyed the area and found that the land where the peels had been dumped had thrived, with more than double the living biomass as the unsullied parts.

Área de Conservación Guanacaste

Restoration Ecology

The orange-fed parts are to the right of road, looking like they were prescribed Rogaine. 

The forest had benefited hugely from the orange infusion, and this was with the original program having been quickly cut short. Clearly, whenever a law is passed to protect an area, we need to repeal it. 

Britain’s Most Biodiverse Spot Is an Industrial Waste Site

Humans destroyed Canvey Wick in a series of different ways. Canvey Wick is a corner of one island in England, and early in the 20th century, we used it as a dumping site for gunk pulled out of the Thames. Then it was going to be an oil refinery, so we laid down huge circles of asphalt that would become foundations for construction. Then the 1970s got too weird, so we abandoned the refinery plans and also abandoned the site. We’d apparently taken a marshland and ruined it.

But we hadn’t. Because the land that was left behind contained a mixture of soils more varied than anywhere else in the country. This resulted in what’s been dubbed a brownfield rain forest. It now fosters a wide array of species who live nowhere else in Britain. Species like otherwise unknown kinds of bees, and the bombardier beetle, which will blow noxious fluid from its belly at you in an audible explosion.

Australian bombardier beetle

Peter Halasz

Like the opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night”

Or Hedychrum niemalei, a parasitic wasp, or a second type of wasp with carnivorous larvae, and... Okay, we just remembered nature is terrifying. Maybe we need to get that refinery built after all, so we have fuel for our flamethrowers. 

NYC Drops Dead Subway Cars in the Ocean, for the Ocean’s Sake

Thousands of subway cars were in active use in New York City from 1964 all the way into the 21st century. Finally, the city took these aging clunkers out of service and buried them at sea: 

Okay, that doesn’t look like something the sea would appreciate. The smell alone from those cars renders them lethal to humans over extended periods; one could only imagine the effect they’d have on fish. But actually, we don’t need to imagine, because we’ve seen the result, and it looks pretty good:

This was not another mob scheme to dispose of NYC trash in the dead of night. It was a plan to build an artificial reef that would spark coral growth. These cars also provide plenty of room for medium fish to congregate (packed like sardines) without predators being able to squeeze their way in. 

The program was a success. It turned out much better than, say, the time Florida tried making their own reef using old tires, and disaster ensued

Australian Parrots Have Moved to the City to Raid Dumpsters

Our dumpsters provide food for all kinds of vermin. They attract rats, they attract roaches, and in Sydney over the past decade, they’ve started attracting sulphur-crested cockatoos. This is a bird normally associated with more wooded areas and looks a bit more fancy than your typical city pigeon.

Sulphur-crested cockatoo

Tatiana Gerus

That crest is made of feathers. It’s not a fearsome horn, like it looks here.

Cockatoos are smart. They won’t only peck at bags sticking out of dumpsters but have taught themselves to open sealed bins. They can also, on occasion, open windows, though we can’t imagine why they’d want to. 

For now, the sight of one of these birds will strike the average Sydney dweller as a strange treat. Given time, however, we’ll surely all be socially conditioned to see them as pests. Raccoons are cute and we’d all love them if we saw them for the first time, but when a homeowner sees one scratching at their garbage cans, they reach for their gun. If you see a sulphur-crested cockatoo, you should also note that it might outlive you. These birds can live to be 100, while the average Australian will die in the next three years. 

The Lone Tomato

The island of Surtsey in Iceland is less than 60 years old. In 1963, underwater volcanos erupted, and we saw this new landmass poke its way through the surface. We named it after Surtr, from Norse mythology, because people in Iceland are pretty metal. 

Surtsey on November 30, 1963, 16 days after the beginning of the eruption.

Howell Williams

He will do battle during Ragnarök. Maybe on this ragna-rock. 

Though the island was pure barren stone, not much time passed before observers noticed life popping up on it. It started with moss, and then came lichen. Then came the insects. Seals from the ocean flopped up there to hang out. Decades later, the island had soil, with bushes and worms.

Back in the 1960s, though, scientists detected life there skipping some steps in evolution. Ágúst Bjarnason came to the island and investigated a 5-inch plant that had sprouted. It was a tomato plant. That made no sense. Solanum lycopersicum was a New World plant originally, and it took centuries of selective breeding to get it in the shape it is now. It couldn’t grow on a new, isolated island thanks to spores blowing in the wind. How had it got there?

The plant was growing out of some kind of organic lump. Bjarnason looked closer and realized it was a human turd. Some prior scientist had visited the island, defecated there and left behind both a tomato seed that had passed through his digestive tract and the fertile soil necessary to foster that seed into a seedling. 

Let us rejoice at the thought of this stubborn tomato. We should all take it as evidence that nature is perfectly capable of dealing with our shit. 

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

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