What Happens To Your Trash When You Throw It Out?

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Most of us don’t think about our trash after we toss it into the litter bin. And why would we? Everything we use is packaged in neat little plastic bundles for our convenience – it wouldn’t be very convenient if we actually had to take our trash to the landfill and process it ourselves, would it? Instead, the 368,000 people and 148,000 vehicles employed within the U.S. waste management industry move your garbage to the 1,754 active landfills and 87 incinerators spread across the nation.

But whether you think about your trash or not, it certainly doesn’t just disappear when you’re done with it (even if it disappears from your mind). According to an Environmental Protection Agency study from 2006, the average American throws out 4/5 of a metric ton of trash every single year – that’s 4.6 lbs per person, per day. That’s a whole lot of trash! So where does it all end up?

That same EPA study showed that 55% of that trash ends up buried in landfills, 33% ends up recycled, and 12.5% of it ends up incinerated. So despite the recent push for sustainability, most of the trash we throw out still ends up in buried in the earth – most of it isn’t biodegradable either. Furthermore, because the landfill eventually gets sealed up, there is little air and water around to aid the decomposition process, turning the landfill into a giant preserving device for our trash.

What’s The Impact?

While most of us know better, there are still probably some people wondering – what’s the problem? I’ll never have to see it again anyways. If all of the trash is buried, why does it matter?

Well for one, burying trash in landfills is a completely unsustainable practice – eventually, we’re going to run out of places to bury our garbage, especially as the human population continues to grow exponentially and our consumption continues to increase. Furthermore, despite the planning and engineering that goes into landfill construction, landfills often leak waste into the groundwater. This groundwater and they harmful waste from your buried trash all ends up back in the ecosystem. And despite being buried underground, America’s landfills are also responsible for 2.3% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, landfills are responsible for ¼ of all methane gas emissions in the world.

What about the 12.5% of trash that gets incinerated? At least that doesn’t get buried into the ground where it can poison the ground water and slowly release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, right? Well, that’s not entirely true. Some of the remaining ash from your incinerated trash will be used in tar for roads and parking lots, but much of it will still end up dumped into a landfill. And of course, the garbage burning doesn’t exactly do the environment any favors – it releases toxic compounds like mercury and dioxins, as well as massive amounts of harmful gases such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. These gases are partially responsible for the smog you see hanging over the world’s most polluted cities – they are also responsible for the infamous environmental phenomenon known as acid rain. As you might imagine, acid rain can have a devastating effect on animals and plants. It’s even harmful to the concrete and steel jungles we call our cities – the chemicals in acid rain can cause corrosion in steel, peel paint, and even erode concrete structures.

What Can You Do To Help?

If everyone made just a few small changes to their consumption habits, it would have a massive effect on the stream of refuse flowing into the world’s landfills and incinerators. The fact that 55% of your trash will end up in a landfill should show you just how important it is to use biodegradable alternatives whenever possible. It also emphasizes the importance of recycling, so that more of your consumables don’t end up in landfills in the first place. While the recycling process is not 100% environmentally friendly, it is a massive improvement over burying toxic trash into thousands of square miles of pristine land, or burning garbage and sending harmful chemicals into our atmosphere.

Making an efforts to use less consumables, recycling, reusing, and choosing biodegradable options where available may not seem like it makes a big difference, but every piece of non-biodegradable garbage you don’t throw out is another piece that doesn’t end up in a landfill – where it will sit for thousands of years, poisoning the world we inhabit.

About The Author
Nathalie is passionate about sustainable living, fitness, technology, and writing. Nat is a blogger over at Opishposh.com, a blog that publishes interesting facts and cool stuff from around the world. Check out their latest article on the 10 most polluted cities in the world.

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February 5th 2013 |

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