I got my start in garbage early in life (thanks, 4th grade field trip to the dump) because I live in an environmentally-friendly city: San Francisco. In San Francisco, compost and recycling aren’t just normal, they’re the law. One benefit of living in one of the greenest cities in the country is that most of our waste (80%) gets recycled or composted, leaving only 20% going to the landfill.
This is accomplished through a unique city/hauler relationship, years of social norming, laws mandating proper composting and recycling at every level (commercial & residential), and bans on single use plastic bags, water bottles, and Styrofoam. There’s also some pretty cool technology involved, but I’ll do a post about that later.
Regardless, the national recycling rate hovers around 30%, making SF’s 80% rate an abnormality in the United States.
This success leads some of my Bay Area friends to believe that their magical recycling city produces no trash at all, leading to the question, “Doesn’t it all get recycled?”
No. No it doesn’t.
So if it isn’t all getting recycled, then where does it go?
“Where The Waste Goes” is a topic that has filled more than a couple of books, so for now let’s do a quick dive into where your stuff is most likely to go.
Plants, lawn clippings, tree limbs, flowers, food scraps (meat, dairy, bread, peels and pits, moldy leftovers), food-soiled paper (wet paper towels, napkins, pizza boxes)
Depending on where you live, curbside compost gets picked up from your house and gets taken to a transfer station and then a commercial facility. Some farmers markets have compost drop-off sites, and there’s always the classic backyard pile or apartment worm bin.
At commercial facilities, incoming plant and food matter gets ground up into smaller pieces, sifted for plastic, glass, and metal, and turned into mulch through an outdoor compost system. There are a variety of methods for doing this, and it’s highly regulated (at least in California).
Heat, water, and oxygen aid the microbes and invertebrates who eat through and break down the material. This magical transformation creates a nutritious soil amendment.
WARNING! Please don’t put dog poop or kitty litter in your compost. They can contain dangerous pathogens.
Increases water retention in soil, increases carbon sequestration in soil, keeps useful nutrients out of the landfill.
Permits are hard to get so there aren’t enough of the compost facilities to keep up with how much compost gets collected.
Totally depends on where you live, but generally you’re safe with paper, cardboard, metal, bottles and cans,
Again, if you’re lucky, a truck comes to your house to collect your recycling, or you can go to a community recycling drop-off center. These are more common in states with Bottle Bills.
Recyclables get sorted by machine and by hand at a Material Recovery Facility (MRF, pronounced Murf- but more on this later) then compacted into square bales and shipped to a processing facility- usually not located in the United States.
Keeps valuable materials out of the landfill, negates the need to extract new raw resources, creates jobs, introduces people to other environmental issues.
Doesn’t reduce the amount of waste created, re-manufacturing is often polluting, recycling can create a feeling of righteousness wherein the recycler then feels guilt-free doing non environmentally friendly activities.
Nearest giant hole in the ground, or burned for energy then dumped in a giant hole in the ground.
Landfills eventually turn into giant mountains of trash; each day’s trash compacted with a layer of dirt sealing it in. Nothing in there decomposes; they’re like the Egyptian tombs. In some areas where all the landfills are full and closed, incinerators burn trash for energy (same energy process as burning coal).
My friends tell me that we can’t live with trash surrounding us, so it has to go away.
Landfills leak toxic fluids into the nearby groundwater, and burning incinerators pump toxic ash into the nearby air. Water and Air tend to move around, so we are all affected by this toxic pollution.
Our waste doesn’t go away, and there’s a lot of it. What waste? Well, that’s a question I’ll try and answer as I go along.
Until we start shooting out garbage into the sun, all of our waste stays here. On our one and only finite planet.
P.S. If you have a specific question about where YOUR waste goes, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll look it up for you.