Where Does Our Trash Go?
Learn Where Waste and Garbage Ends Up
The United States is the top producer of municipal solid waste, or MSW, in the entire world, generating about 251 million tons of trash every year. So, where exactly does all that trash go?
The answer differs widely between regions, states and even cities. The landfill is the most popular destination for solid waste, by a wide margin. Some cities, like San Francisco and Seattle, are able to recycle more waste than they send to landfills, but the majority of the U.S. sends their trash to the dump.
The map below shows the approximate waste generation rates of all 50 states:
Of course, to fully understand where garbage waste goes, we also have to look at recycling. The biggest recyclers in the U.S. are California, Oregon, Washington, the Carolinas, Florida, Maine, Minnesota and Illinois. Recycling rates vary from state to state for a number of reasons. Some states have deposit-refund systems, or "bottle bills," which grant either 5 or 10 cents back on recycled aluminum cans, glass bottles and plastic jugs. Others boost their recycling rate by mandating the recycling of one or more commodities (e.g. aluminum cans or plastics).
From Waste Disposal to Waste Collection
So we have the big picture of where our trash comes from and how much of it is recycled. But where exactly does our garbage end up once it’s picked up? Regardless of whether it’s picked up in a trash can, roll off dumpster or somewhere else, there are currently four primary destinations for the country's waste:
2. Recycling centers.
4. Waste-to-energy plants.
You can find these facilities all over the country, though their presence in certain states can vary greatly depending on local regulations, state mandates, the needs of local communities and consumer demand.
Where Trash Goes First
Transfer stations provide a central location where garbage trucks can drop off their trash, and continue making pickups, without having to leave the city to make a direct dump at the nearest landfill or other disposal facility. The transfer station acts as a halfway point that allows the trash to be compacted and consolidated before being sent to a landfill or other destination. Once ready for transfer, the trash is loaded onto long-range trucks that will take it to its final destination. This reduces costs and frees up regular garbage trucks to continue making pickups throughout the day.
Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)
These facilities are generally called material recovery facilities (MRFs) because they actively sort debris in order to recover useful materials from the waste stream. State-of-the-art MRFs incorporate a variety of technologies to achieve this such as magnets, shredders and current separators (for sorting ferrous & non-ferrous metals). Some transfer stations will include MRFs or associated systems on-site, but standalone MRFs are typically more common.
Where Garbage Ultimately Ends Up
After our trash has made its way through the compactors and sorting machines it is taken to one of the following destinations where it will be stored, recycled, or, in some cases, used to make energy:
55% of the country's garbage ends up in one of 3,000+ active landfills scattered throughout the country. In decades’ past, these facilities were little more than open dumps, bringing to mind iconic images of seagulls swarming around mountains of garbage. But this practice was banned outright by the US Congress in 1976 with the passing of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the principal federal law governing solid waste management in the United States. The act banned open dumping, established new rules for sanitary landfill operations, and established separate waste streams and tougher regulations for hazardous waste.
Recycling Facilities & Composters
Roughly 35% of all solid waste goes to either a recycling or composting facility. Recycling and composting operate under the same principle of turning waste into new products. Recycling facilities generally focus on processing aluminum, plastics, paper and glass, while composters use food and agricultural waste to create compost for municipal and consumer use. Recycling and composting rates have increased annually since the early 1980s, though their growth has slowed down in recent years. Despite this, some of the largest cities in the U.S. have adopted large-scale recycling and composting systems, with many others considering their implementation in the future.
Incinerators are large industrial furnaces that are specifically designed to burn municipal solid waste. The primary combustion chambers of these facilities are kept at a blistering 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to turn any amount of trash to ash. This process reduces the original volume of the waste by 95%, significantly reducing the amount of landfill space needed. Incinerating MSW also produces surplus heat that can be used to provide both heat and electricity to the local grid.
Anaerobic digesters turn organic materials into useful things, like energy and fertilizer. They are most commonly used on farms where organic waste is readily available, though some actively accept food waste from restaurants, grocery stores and entire communities. Digesters are also used by wastewater treatment plants to produce energy for the local power grid. Instead of using food or agricultural waste as a feedstock, they use organic-rich sewage.
Waste Trends for the 21st Century
So where does trash go? As it stands today, the majority of our garbage ends up in landfills. This is expected to change over the course of the 21st century as recycling facilities and waste-to-energy plants become far more cost-effective. Consumers in general are also becoming more conscientious of their carbon footprint and the amount of food and other resources wasted every day. Perhaps in the future, there will just be one answer to the question of where our trash goes: the recycling center.