Where Does Your Trash Go?
Most people dispense with items and perishable goods many times a day and put little thought into the process. Still, a person will sometimes wonder — where does trash end up? The fact is, trash could end up in one of many places, depending on how you choose to dispense with a given set of items.
Granted, not all items need to be put to waste. In fact, the majority of paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass and plastic products in your home can easily be recycled into future paper and container products. Likewise, you can also put the wilted plants and expired produce in your kitchen to good afterlife use.
So where does our trash go after being picked up? There are a number of possibilities:
- Most likely, the trash will end up at a landfill in your state. However, since landfills are often far away, there could be some stops along the way once the garbage has left your curbside.
- In the best-case scenario, the trash will be incinerated, and the process this entails will generate the energy that feeds your local power grid.
- If you throw away electronic items, they might actually be sent to another nation.
Still, the question doesn’t end there, because various steps must be employed to reduce trash and make it disappear in the most sanitary way possible. Therefore, in order to understand what happens to trash when you throw it away, it’s important to know about the processes of recycling, composting and converting waste to energy, as well as the option of shipping waste overseas.
Where Your Trash Goes: Recycling Centers
The recycling center is the first stop for items such as soda bottles, plastic drink containers, milk cartons, cereal boxes, tin cans, newspapers and various sundry items of the average American household. The moment a glass bottle or jar is dropped off in a recycling bin, the glass contents can be recycled into a similar or different container and be back on the shelves of a local store within a month’s time.
When it comes to the reduction of CO2 emissions and waste, recycling is one of the most beneficial things Americans can do on a daily basis. According to DoSomething.org, the amount of energy you might save when you recycle 100 cans could be enough to power your bedroom lights for 14 days. When you imagine the total number of cans throughout all the homes in a given community, the amount of power that could be generated — given that everyone does recycle — could be a boon to the area’s power grid.
While the benefits of recycling have been known since ancient civilizations, the modern-day practice of recycling has only been in place since the early 1980s. However, it only cuts into a small portion of annual waste amounts that could actually be recycled. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and DoSomething, 75% of all waste is recyclable, yet only 30% of American waste actually does get recycled. Therefore, a lot of untapped potential remains with recycling, with many would-be reusable materials getting dumped in trash cans and sent to landfills.
On November 15, 1997, the nation celebrated its first holiday called America Recycles Day. The idea was presented at the National Recycling Coalition’s (NRC’s) Congress and immediately embraced to promote the positive impacts of recycling. In 2019, recycling rates reached about 32% and continued to climb as more consumers became aware of environmentally friendly practices.
As more people gain awareness of recycling, it’s important to promote the versatile disposal guides available in each location. Individual counties create their own set of standards to follow based on factors like proximity to recycling facilities and capabilities of processing machines.
For example, some areas focus on single-stream recycling, which allows you to collect bottles, cans, other containers and paper grades in one recycling bucket. Other locations may separate containers, bottles and cans in a different recycling bucket than the paper grades.
Check your local guidelines to see standards you should follow, so you can help reduce the contamination of materials and foster better quality control at facilities.
Aluminum, Glass, Paper and More: What Gets Recycled?
According to estimates cited by DoSomething, the total scrap value of land-filled aluminum cans for 2014 exceeded $600 million. As such, the nation is sitting on a vast energy supply in the form of waste, as opposed to recycled, aluminum. Nonetheless, machines are employed at dumping sites to separate recyclable items from pure refuse. While technology is far from rectifying the problem, the potential exists to gradually pick up the slack of wasteful human habits.
When it comes to the recycling of glass, the habits of everyday consumers are still far from perfect, finds DoSomething:
- Americans dispose of roughly 28 billion jars and bottles on an annual basis.
- In 2009 alone, 9 million tons of glass were disposed of instead of recycled throughout the nation. This produced enough waste for two cross–country lines of tractor-trailers.
- Recycling habits are somewhat better overall in states that offer incentives for the return of select items.
The problem with recycling is not necessarily down to a lack of options throughout this nation’s communities. As things currently stand, the vast majority of Americans, 87 percent, have nearby recycling programs for newspapers and containers. As far as everyday recycling habits are concerned, improvements in paper recycling have been the most impressive. Between 1990 and 2010, the recycling of paper rose by 89%.
In any case, recycling centers see untold volumes of incoming paper and food containers on a daily basis. The next stop for recycled items is the recycling facility, where reusable household materials such as aluminum, glass, paper and plastic are melted down for reuse by manufacturers.
Where Your Trash Goes: Composters
Recycling centers and facilities provide a great service for the reuse of everyday materials, but what about disposable organic products? After all, people don’t eat all the food they buy. In fact, roughly 1.3 billion tons of food produced globally — approximately a third of the world’s food supply — is wasted each year.
The silver lining to this problem comes in the form of composting food scraps, which does for organic matter what recycling does for glass, paper, plastic and aluminum.
Composting facilities shred discarded foods and plants and transform them into energy supplies and fertilizers for municipal use. Therefore, the unused foods at restaurants, as well as the unpurchased and perished produce at grocery stores, can be put to good use as fertilizer for the next round of crops.
Any casual stroll through a produce section, where tomatoes and bananas typically go soft within two days of hitting the shelves if left unclaimed, points to the importance of composting.
A composting center will employ an anaerobic digester to transform food and plant materials into fertilizers:
- Organic contents are accepted from public recycling centers, as well as farms, restaurants and grocery stores.
- Digesters of this sort are also used for local grid energy production at community wastewater treatment facilities.
Essentially, wasted foods don’t really go to waste when you consider their other, non–edible uses.
Composting has also existed as a personal practice among many of America’s more environmentally conscious homeowners for quite some time. The practice will often consist of collecting organic contents in a plastic bag under the kitchen sink and dumping said contents along a designated area in the backyard to form a compost pile. The contents will then be allowed to sink into the soil, covered with soil or buried to reduce waste.
Granted, organic matter naturally decomposes, so the disposal of rotten tomatoes is a more benign habit than the waste dispensing of glass bottles that could easily be recycled. Nonetheless, composting is another process of green living that helps make the world more efficient, and it does make an environmental difference.
Making Your Own Compost as a Home Project
If you’d like to compost at home, you can place scraps and materials in an open pile or bin outdoors. Consider a compost tumbler or a homemade container made of wood pallets.
You can set your container outdoors, where it’ll have access to rain and gradually add layers of available waste like vegetable food scraps, grade clippings, leaves, chopped twigs and branches and coffee grounds with filters. Avoid composting meat, foods with grease or soap residues, diseased plants or weeds with seeds.
To turn organic matter into compost faster, consider turning your pile with a pitchfork or aerator tool once or twice a week. Keep the waste as moist as a wrung-out sponge so the microorganisms can survive. Once decomposed, you can add the decomposed materials to your yard as mulch, soil conditioner or potting mix.
Limited Adoption of Composting
As things stand, the public at large still has a long way to go in terms of understanding the benefits of composting — the equivalent of recycling for organic matter. Currently, Americans generate food waste to the tune of 21.5 million tons per year, according to DoSomething. In terms of greenhouse gas reduction, the composting of all unused food would be the equivalent of removing 2 million cars from the nation’s roads.
Clearly, there’s more to gain with the widespread adoption of composting as both a private and community practice. Still, usage remains limited.
With present consumer habits, more than half of all garbage ends up at one of the nation’s more than 3,000 landfills. Prior to the 1976 passage of the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, landfills were unrestrained, open-air, seagull-flocked dumps. Since the passage of that law, regulations have been in place that maintain sanitation protocols and refined waste streams at all of the nation’s landfills. Technologies have also been implemented to reduce the size of waste loads and turn such materials into energy.
Where Your Trash Goes: Waste-to-Energy Plants
According to a 2015 report by the EPA cited by DoSomething, the average American generates at least four pounds of refuse on a daily basis, which adds up to roughly 1.5 tons of trash each year. Even after more than thirty years of widespread recycling programs and composting, the U.S. has one of the highest overall waste counts on Earth.
Thankfully, some of that waste is converted to energy at waste-to-energy facilities and used for local power grids. The process is carried out during the period between the collection of garbage and bringing it to its ultimate resting place at a landfill. By the time garbage has been laid to rest, it’s often radically transformed through methods such as incineration, which reduce the bulk and make it easier to bury, all the while generating energy in the process.
The first step, of course, involves the collection of garbage from dumpsters and neighborhood trash cans. When landfills are nearby, garbage collectors will usually take trash directly from a collection site to the landfill. However, landfills are not readily accessible throughout much of the country. Therefore, garbage collectors on most local routes unload trucks at transfer stations.
What Happens at the Transfer Station?
A transfer station serves as the temporary holding ground for trash collected by area trucks on local garbage pickup routes. At transfer stations, waste, as well as recyclable materials, are accepted. Here’s how it works:
- All contents dumped at a transfer station will be held at said location for a short time, where materials are typically sorted for their final destination. Contents are then transported to either a landfill or incineration facility via big rig trucks.
- Certain transfer stations are known as material recovery facilities, where recyclable contents are sorted from piles of refuse via magnetic machinery. Recovery facilities also employ separation technology to sort ferrous from non-ferrous metals. With robotic arms, machines can somewhat compensate for the lack of human responsibility when it comes to recycling.
- At landfills, incoming trash is dumped into an open cell, where the contents are then pressed down with compacting machines. This reduces considerable amounts of bulk from the trash and frees up space within the cell for further loads of incoming trash.
- Once a cell has been filled to capacity, the space is covered with soil and materials to prevent toxic contents from escaping to the surface. With subsequent incoming loads of trash, the whole process is repeated at another open cell.
An industrial incinerator is a massive furnace in which waste is burned to ash. Incinerators run at super–high temperatures powerful enough to reduce even the hardest contents.
Once incineration has been completed, a given batch of waste content is reduced to merely a fraction of its original mass, which helps conserve landfill space. The process of incineration also functions as a heat and electricity generator for local grids.
For some communities, the process of turning waste into energy serves as the primary residential power supply. The gas generated by the Tajiguas landfill in Santa Barbara, Calif., powers up to 3,000 local homes each day.
Where Your Trash Goes: Shipping Trash Overseas
It’s estimated that the world’s trash includes about 350 million tons of plastic annually. Around 2% of global waste gets traded overseas. The remaining 98% is handled domestically. This majority is recycled, sent to a landfill or incinerated. Regarding who trades the most pounds of garbage, Europe leads as the biggest exporter, with about 3.9 million tons sent to other countries annually.
Japan is the second largest exporter of pounds of trash each year, sending about 821,000 tons overseas. The U.S. comes in third place with 751,000 tons of waste transported abroad annually, with other significant exporters including Turkey and China.
The U.S. doesn’t incinerate or bury all of its non–recyclable, inorganic waste. On the contrary, a lot of waste is shipped to places far away from American land. Altogether, about 68,000 shipping containers were exported from America to developing countries in 2018 because of the importers’ limited environmental guidelines and lower labor costs. Some of these locations included Senegal, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Laos.
Generally, the practice of shipping trash overseas, as part of the global waste trade, is reserved for waste of the toxic variety. Consequently, the contents consist of an assortment of items we are eager to get rid of because we don’t have the space.
The global waste trade involves the transportation of waste from one nation to another for the purpose of disposal. In some cases, recyclable contents are separated from refuse, which is then sent to landfills. Significant amounts of the contents in question are of a toxic, hazardous nature.
Since the majority of global waste is produced in the industrialized northern hemisphere, poorer nations are typically at the receiving end of the global waste trade.
Waste is typically shipped from European and North American nations to countries in Asia, Africa and South America. China and Ghana are among the most frequent destinations for electronic waste — also known as “e-waste.” In China, scrap dealers regularly scavenge incoming shipments for products to recycle or resell, risking toxic exposure in the process.
Proponents of the global waste trade have argued it allows poorer countries to improve their economic standing. Critics of the practice allege countries on the receiving end are at risk of toxic pollution. Nations with a high intake of foreign waste have experienced disproportionate levels of contamination and illness among local populations.
E-Waste and Changes in Global Waste Disposal
The global waste trade has ballooned with the advent of modern technology, with products such as computers, peripherals, hardware and other electronics comprising the bulk of global waste shipments. With the falling prices and built-in obsolescence of many of today’s electronic devices, overseas shipments of e-waste continue to grow in volume.
The global waste trade has come under fire by environmental groups, who cite the high levels of toxicity in and around the locations where contents are dumped on a routine basis. These dumpsites have witnessed drastic declines in nearby fish, bird and assorted wildlife populations. The surrounding air, underlying soil and nearby water at such locations have also shown high levels of toxicity.
The practice remains controversial yet unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. According to figures gathered by the EPA, the average American household contains 28 electronic devices, while the nation as a whole generates 3.36 million tons of e-waste. A subsequent report by the United Nations found a paltry 16% of e-waste generated during 2014 was actually handled by regulated companies or government agencies.
Some areas, such as New Jersey, have made it illegal to dispose of certain electronics in commercial and residential dumpsters. This effort reduces toxic chemicals that leak into the ground at landfills and surrounding ecosystems. Instead, locals can find their nearest e-waste collection point, as listed by the Department of Environmental Protection. Some cities and municipalities offer curbside recycling as a convenient way to reduce electronic waste.
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