Dissolvable is not a solution to garbage

Ideas for products and packaging that dissolve in water at the end of their life come around as regularly as seasons and years. One of the most recent is cell phones, laptops and other gadgets that can be flushed down the sink or the toilet at the end of their life, thus reducing the amount of e-waste that goes to landfill.

The idea arises, at least in part, from a paper published last year in the journal Science by a group of US and international scientists and titled A Physically Transient Form of Silicon Electronics. The paper describes ways in which electronic devices might be made soluble, acknowledging that some aspects of soluble electronics are still at a theoretical stage. The scientists also propose that these “transient electronics” may have application to medical devices in situations where there is benefit in having the device disappear from the body once its role is complete.

From there, bloggers and journalists have translated the idea to personal and household electronics that could be flushed away when they are no longer wanted.

The idea that there is an “away” to which waste materials can be flushed or shipped shows how poor a job our schools are doing when it comes to science-based environmental education. There is no “away”. Garbage flushed away and poured into the sea is going to cause much more environmental harm than garbage stored in a landfill. Basic science teaches that ‘Matter can be neither created not destroyed’. If biodegradable, waste in water is as harmful to the atmosphere as waste that is sent to an incinerator. If made of metals, elements that cannot decompose, waste pollutes all water with which it comes in contact. If made of persistent (non-biodegradable) organics or inorganics, waste disposed of to water inevitably increases the amount of solid particles or dissolved contaminants found in lakes, rivers, and oceans.

Soluble electronics and soluble packaging are not a solution to our waste problems. They may have value for use in special applications but those applications must be quite limited if we are not to create a whole new level of serious pollution problems. The best solution for waste is not to create it in the first place. The second best is to recycle as much of our waste materials as possible. Soluble or not, solid waste materials except for human waste and toilet tissue, do not belong down the drain.

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