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Where Does Trash Go?

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 wildly 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. Beyond landfills, waste in the U.S. also goes to recycling centers, composters and waste-to-energy plants.

Percent of MSW in Waste Facilities  
Landfills 52.25 percent
Waste-to-Energy Plants 12.8 percent
Composters 8.9 percent
Recycling Centers 25.6 percent

Source: Waste360

From Waste Disposal to Waste Collection

Where does trash go after you throw it away? Regardless of whether it’s picked up in a trash can, roll off dumpster or somewhere else, your trash might make a few stops before it reaches its final destination.

Where Trash Goes First

Transfer Stations

Transfer stations provide a temporary location for garbage trucks to drop off their waste cargo. Once compacted and ready for transfer, the trash is loaded into larger trucks that will take it to its final destination, such as a landfill. This reduces costs and frees up regular garbage trucks to continue making pickups throughout the day.

Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs)

Material recovery facilities (MRFs) are locations where debris is sorted in order to recover useful materials from the waste stream before it reaches its final destination. State-of-the-art MRFs incorporate a variety of technologies to achieve this such as magnets, shredders and current separators (for sorting ferrous and non-ferrous metals).

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:


What Happens to Garbage in a Landfill

Just over 52 percent of the country's garbage ends up in one of more than 3,000 active landfills scattered throughout the U.S. 

What happens to garbage in a landfill? 

Landfills are designed to store waste, but not to break it down. They are lined with clay and covered in a flexible plastic skin. Drains and pipes crisscross each layer to collect leachate, a contaminated fluid created by garbage. As a layer fills, it is covered over with another sheet of plastic and topped with soil and plants. The layers of trash form hills. Eventually, the garbage will decompose, but the process is slow in this oxygen-free environment.

Recycling Facilities & Composters

Recycling Facility With Bales of Recyclables

Roughly 35 percent of all solid waste goes to either a recycling or composting facility. Recycling and composting operate under the same principle of reusing waste by turning it 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 growth rates have begun to slow. Despite this, some of the largest cities in the U.S. have adopted large-scale recycling and composting systems, with many others planning similarly ambitious systems. The top five recycling cities in the country divert 60 to 80 percent of their waste from landfills. 

Top Recycling Cities in the U.S.  
San Francisco, CA 80 percent
Los Angeles, CA 76.4 percent
San Jose, CA 75 percent
Portland, OR 70 percent
San Diego, CA 68 percent

Source: TakePart

Waste-to-Energy Plants

Waste-to-Energy Incinerator

Waste-to-energy plants, also known as trash incinerators, are large industrial furnaces designed to burn municipal solid waste. They process 12.8 percent of national MSW. The primary combustion chambers of these facilities operate 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 percent, significantly reducing the need for landfill space. Incinerating MSW also produces surplus heat that can be used to generate both heat and electricity.

Anaerobic Digester Turns Waste to Energy

Anaerobic digesters, a different form of waste conversion, turn organic materials into energy and fertilizer through a biological process using microorganisms. 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. Wastewater treatment plants also use digesters to produce energy for the local power grid. Instead of using food or agricultural waste as a feedstock, they use organics-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. Not only are recycling facilities and waste-to-energy plants becoming more cost-effective, cities are setting zero waste goals and individuals are becoming more aware of their carbon footprint

Since 2005, annual MSW generation rates in the U.S. have plateaued while recycling rates have continued to increase. If these trends last, the amount of waste ending up in landfills will decrease over the next century.