Whether it shows in a factory smokestack or is buried in a landfill, human-created waste pollutes the planet. To help the planet recover its green-ness, it helps to understand how pollution impacts the environment.

  • Burning fossil fuels is perhaps the greatest contributor to pollution. However, it’s also the primary means for generating and transporting energy. The cheapest and most reliable way of providing electricity involves power plants that burn fossil fuels such as coal, which is transported to the plant using fuel also refined from fossils.

    Burning fossil fuels causes much of the greenhouse gas problem that contributes to climate change. These gases contribute to numerous environmental problems, including climate change and acid rain. (Acid rain occurs when fossil fuel burning produces sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which then create a mild acidic solution that falls in rain or as dry particles; in these forms, it has been linked to damaging effects on waterways and forests.)

  • Many waste materials that go into landfill sites or incinerators have to be processed ahead of time so that their components don’t emit potentially toxic chemicals back into the land and the air. True, new landfills are carefully sealed so that their contents don’t leak, and incinerators use much cleaner technology than they once did. But all this requires energy, which is exactly what the world should consume less of. Added to which is the fact that these sealed landfills expend resources to preserve evidence of our wastefulness for generations to come.

    In developing countries, garbage may be dumped in any spare piece of land or in landfill sites that fail to protect the environment, or it may be burned without consideration for either nearby residents or the environment. This pollution compounds health and sanitation issues because it risks contaminating the ground, local water sources, and the air.