Waste & recycling
Where Does Trash Go?
Where does trash go after you throw it out? Waste disposal is a common part of modern life, but most of us don't stop to think about where our trash ends up. The answer isn't as simple as a landfill; that's just one of several places where your waste could end up, depending on what it is and how you dispose of it.
Not everything you dispose of must be put in the garbage. Most paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum and plastics products can be recycled and used again, reducing the amount of waste your household generates.
Most garbage ends its life at a landfill in the same state it was disposed in. However, there can be a number of steps between garbage can and landfill. In some cities, waste is incinerated and used to create energy that is fed back into the local power grid. For discarded electronics, the waste process usually ends in an entirely different nation than it started in.
Where Trash Goes: Recycling
Recycling is one of the best options for waste disposal, because recycled items are able to be reformed and used again. Recycling isn't an option for everything, but it is for plastic bottles, milk cartons, pasta and cereal boxes, mail and newspapers, and generally all paper, cardboard, glass or plastic products. If you're not sure what can be recycled where you live, check your municipality guidelines for sorting and recyclables.
Recycling is one of the most beneficial things individuals can do to have an impact on reducing CO2 emissions and waste. The EPA estimated that over 70% of American waste is recyclable, but we only recycle 30% of it.
A recycled glass bottle can be back on a store's shelf in just a month's time, with energy expenditure far less than that of making a new glass bottle. Taking the time to properly sort through the recyclables in your waste is one of the quickest ways to have a positive impact on your local environment and cut down on household waste!
Household items aren't the only type of debris that can be recycled either. Construction and demolition debris as well as concrete debris can be brought to specialty recyclers so material can be recovered and reused.
Recycling is a practice that dates back to ancient times but in the US, modern recycling practices didn't take hold until the early 1980s. Clearly, Americans still have a way to go to fully take advantage of the benefits of recycling rather than trashing household items.
Recycling: Untapped Potential
The US is sitting on an untapped goldmine: trashed aluminum. Aluminum is recyclable in most cities across the country, and yet in 2014, more than $600 million dollars' worth of aluminum was trashed, not recycled.
Glass is another product that is not typically recycled. Annually, it's estimated that Americans dispose of 28 billion glass jars and bottles. But while many communities advertise their recycling for paper and cardboard, glass is often trashed rather than thrown in with the recyclables. Easy access to recycling makes all the difference, as proven by the 89% increase in paper recycling seen between 1990 and 2010.
Where Trash Goes: Composters
Most people don't eat all of the food they buy; 1.3 billion tons of food or 1/3 of the world's food supply is trashed each year. Composting is a better way of disposing of it.
Composting is to organic matter what recycling is to glass and paper. We've all seen (and avoided) the overripe bananas at the grocery store. Composters take perished and unused foods from grocery stores and restaurants and turn them into fertilizer for the next generation of produce. Composters also take in organic waste from farms and public recycling centers.
Composters use an anerobic digester to turn food, plants and other organic materials into nutrient-rich, organic fertilizer for plants. Anerobic digesters use microorganisms to turn organic materials into energy and fertilizer through a biological digestion process. These digesters also used at wastewater treatment plants for the organics-rich sewage.
Composting is typically thought of as an at-home practice for green-thumbed and environmentally conscious households, but composting your food waste can be a great way for any household to cut down on waste while creating the best fertilizer your garden has ever had. While the old way of composting was to simply throw your food waste in a bag and let it decompose in the yard, today there are plenty of options for at-home composters to create a subtle and odor-free container to let nature work its magic. Handy individuals can even build their own composting boxes!
However, Americans as a whole are slow to adopt composting into their homes. But every year, we produce 21.5 million tons of food waste. Composting all of that unused food would have the same impact on greenhouse gas emissions as removing 2 million cars from the road!
Where Trash Goes: Transfer Station & Energy Plants
The United States has one of the highest overall waste counts of all the developed nations on the planet. But it's not all landfills and dumps- some of the waste is able to be converted into energy and returned to the local power grid.
Converting garbage into energy is actually a mid-step between collection and landfill disposal. Much of the waste taken to landfills has been incinerated to reduce the bulk, make it easier to bury, and generate energy. The incineration process produces energy that can be used by businesses and households.
For areas where landfills are easily accessible, garbage is taken straight there after collection. But the US only has a few thousand landfills for a vast area, and for many places, the nearest landfill is hundreds of miles away. In these areas, collected garbage is unloaded at transfer stations.
Transfer stations are temporary holding areas for garbage and recyclables where materials are sorted in accordance with their final destination. Some transfer stations are also material recovering facilities (MRF), where recyclables can be sorted from garbage with the assistance of machines. There are two types of material recovery facilities- clean and dirty. Clean MRFs receive pre-sorted recyclables from homes and businesses. Dirty MRFs receive mixed waste and process the recyclable materials out of the trash. Some of this work is done manually and some of it is done with machines, including magnets, shredders and current separators.
From the transfer station, waste goes to a landfill or an incinerator. Industrial incinerators are large furnaces that burn at scorching temperatures, 1,800 F. Everything put inside is burned to ash and reduced by 95%- a fraction of its original size. The process of incineration creates energy which is used as heat and electricity for local power grids. Some communities even use this as their primary power source.
Where Trash Goes: Overseas
Not all waste generated in the US stays here. Every year the US ships thousands of pounds of garbage overseas to other countries, as part of the global waste trade. Much of this waste is toxic or contains toxic chemicals.
The global waste trade is the transportation of garbage from one country to another in order to dispose of it. While recyclables are typically separated out from the waste, most of the garbage shipped overseas is toxic or contains hazardous chemicals. This waste is then shipped to poorer, less developed nations. Since much of the global waste is produced in the Northern Hemisphere, this waste often goes south to Southern Hemisphere nations.
Waste from the US, Canada and Europe is shipped to countries in Asia, Africa and South America. Two of the most common destinations for e-waste, or disposed electronics is China and Ghana. These nations often have scrap dealers sorting through incoming shipments for products to recycle or resell, encountering toxic chemical exposure in the process.
This practice is controversial. Advocates say it allows these countries to improve their economic standing, but critics allege these countries are used as toxic dumping grounds for waste other countries don't want to pollute their land with. Indeed, nations with high intake rates of international waste have disproportionate levels of environmental contamination and illness among the locals.
Where Trash Goes: Landfills
Currently, more than half of all garbage in the country ends up at one of 3,000 landfills.
Landfills are designed to store, not break down, waste. As such, they're designed in layers with clay-lined cells to hold the waste and covered in flexible plastic sheets. Trash that hasn't been incinerated is compacted by machines to reduce the bulk and make it easier to store.
Drains and pipes are installed across each layer to collected the waste water produced by the garbage. Once all the cells in a layer are filled, the layer is covered with more plastic and topped with soil and plants. While waste does eventually break down, the process is slow because of the lack of oxygen.
These landfills are less harmful today than they were before the passage of the 1976 Resources and Conservation Act, when they were smelly, sprawling dumps that piled garbage high and were always surrounded by birds. Today's sanitation protocols and improved technologies have reduced the size of landfills and are even able to turn some emissions and materials into energy, but there's still a long way to go.
As you can see, the answer to the question of where does trash go is not complicated, but there are more steps involved than you may think. There are several options as to where your garbage ends up and along the way, an entire industry and countless jobs are created.
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