Time to Get Wasted
The true BTS of where your trash goes
Hope you're having a great start to the summer. This week we've been noodling around where all the waste we produce goes after we throw it in the dumpster. After doing some research, we've found that the process of disposing of waste is quite long, and everyone deserves to know truly what happens to the waste they throw out.
In 2018, the U.S. produced over 292.4 million tons of trash, or about 4.9 pounds per person a day. This totals to nearly 1,800 pounds per person per year.
America is responsible for 12% of the world’s trash, despite making up only 4% of the world’s population. Over 50% of this waste gets dumped into landfills or burned.
Food waste is the most common item that gets thrown out, with over 40 million tons every year in the U.S., around 30-40% of the entire food supply.
91% of plastic gets dumped or burned in incinerators, with the rest of the 16.5 million tons of plastics we throw away washing into the world’s oceans, contaminating the air and polluting our ecosystems.
The Waste Lifecycle
What exactly happens when you throw out the trash in the dumpster? Each city, county, and state has their own methods on dealing with waste but here's a general lifecycle:
You purchase a product, use it for however long you deem necessary, and throw it away to be collected in your garbage bin.
The garbage company for your neighborhood rolls up the next day, dumps your trash in the truck and drives off to a transfer station.
At the transfer station, your trash is sorted to go to either a landfill, incinerator, recycling center or composting facility.
The closest trash facility from your neighborhood can often be farther away than you think. NYC has to transport landfill trash to Ohio and South Carolina.
This transportation can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, not to mention the carbon footprint cost to deliver this trash. Sometimes, we even have to send our trash internationally. In 2019, 187 countries signed the Basel Convention to strictly limit how trash is traded internationally; but the U.S. was not one of them.
Anything tossed in a garbage bin will often get sent to a landfill, not separated or sorted out. (This means that you must sort your recyclables and compost into different bins first!) There are different types of landfills, but most often it ends up at a municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill with the following process:
Trash gets dropped off at the edge of the landfill awaiting inspection.
Waste inspectors investigate the loads of trash for the day, ensuring there is no hazardous waste or unacceptable items.
Waste trucks are then directed to collect trash and fill certain areas in the landfill for the highest compaction.
Heavy operator vehicles then push and compact the trash after it is dumped.
At the end of the day, the landfill is covered with soil or tarps. This trash sits on top of a liner with drainage, gas collection, etc.
Instead of a landfill, some cities might send their MSW to a resource recovery plant, or an incinerator that burns trash. This decision might be because of an economic cost due to how far away a landfill is, often undergoing a series of cleaning processes before entering a controlled burning process (similar to something you might have seen in Toy Story 3).
Recycling bins are shipped to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where each type of material can get separated. They are then separated and categorized into each type of material like plastic bottles, aluminum cans, or cardboard boxes. This gets processed into new materials at specific recycling facilities before becoming reused at a manufacturing facility.
Organic Waste Compost
Certain cities might have an opportunity to compost for you with a curbside composting program. Instead of a typical garbage truck, you will have a specific bin or sealed pail that will be picked up and sent to a local composting facility. This same compost can then be sent back or purchased to be used for gardening at home.
What We're Consuming This Week
🗑️ Check out how NYC manages its 3.2 million tons of trash from start to finish.
🌧️ For the first time since 1988, Yellowstone National Park closed all 5 entrances due to record flooding, rockslides, and a burst of heavy rains.
🏭 Chronic air pollution cuts average global life expectancy by 2 years which is comparable to smoking.
🧪 Yesterday, the EPA announced that a group of human-made chemicals found in water, cosmetics, and food packaging poses a greater threat to human health than previously thought.
🔬 A team at Harvard is extracting DNA samples from leeches' blood meals to measure biodiversity in the area.
🏞️ View these astonishing pictures from the Great Lakes as less water is frozen each year during the winter due to climate change.
Things You Can Do
Be sure to separate your plastics and compost from your trash if possible. The extra step goes a long way to ensuring it doesn’t end up in a landfill.
A couple of things you can do to create a sustainable summer: generate less food waste, pack sustainably for your vacation, and upgrade your lawn to ditch the grass.
If you're looking for grocery stores and household staples that have zero waste packaging, litterless has a resource here.
Encourage your city government to help make recycling and composting mandatory, as well as funding facilities by signing up for these programs and writing to your officials.
We personally still are curious about trash and trash management in the U.S., including questions like:
Is recycling plastic better than incineration?
Should we encourage home composting?
How often should we upgrade older less-efficient electronic devices?
What products should be made with more recyclable vs. one-time use?
What happens when a landfill is full?
Let us know if you have any specific questions like these that we can answer in an upcoming edition. If you liked this post from Do One Better, share it with your friends and family!