Waste Disposal and Recycling

Where does your trash go once it leaves your trash can?

A landfill in Sussex, New Jersey.

Ray Pfortner / Getty Images

In This Article

Take a look inside your garbage can. How much garbage does your family throw away each day? Each week? Where does all of that trash go?

It's tempting to think that the trash we throw away actually goes away, but we know better. Here's a look at what actually happens to all of that trash after it leaves your can.

Solid Waste Fast Facts and Definitions

First, the facts. Did you know that every hour, Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles? Every day, each person living in the U.S. generates an average of 2 kilograms (about 4.4 pounds) of trash. 

What Is Municipal Solid Waste

Municipal solid waste is the trash produced by homes, businesses, schools, and other organizations within the community. It differs from other waste generated such as construction debris, agricultural waste, or industrial waste.

We utilize three methods for dealing with all of this waste - incineration, landfills, and recycling.

  • Incineration is a waste treatment process that involves the burning of solid waste. Specifically, incinerators burn the organic material within the waste stream.
  • A Landfill is a hole in the ground designed for the burying of solid waste. Landfills are the oldest and most common method of waste treatment.
  • Recycling is the process of reclaiming raw materials and reusing them to create new goods.


Incineration has a few advantages from an environmental perspective. Incinerators don't take up much space. Nor do they pollute groundwater. Some facilities even use the heat generated by burning waste to produce electricity. Incineration also has a number of disadvantages. They release a number of pollutants into the air, and roughly 10 percent of what is burned is left behind and must be handled in some way. Incinerators can also be expensive to build and operate.

Sanitary Landfills

Before the invention of the landfill, most people living in communities in Europe simply tossed their trash into the streets or outside the city gates. But somewhere around the 1800s, people began to realize that the vermin attracted by all of that trash were spreading diseases.

Local communities began to dig landfills that were simply open holes in the ground where residents could dispose of their garbage. But while it was good to have the waste out of the streets, it didn't take long for town officials to realize that these unsightly dumps still attracted vermin. They also leached chemicals from the waste materials, forming pollutants called leachate that ran off into streams and lakes or seeped into the local groundwater supply.

In 1976, the U.S. banned the use of these open dumps and set up guidelines for the creation and use of sanitary landfills. These types of landfills are designed to hold municipal solid waste as well as construction debris and agricultural waste while preventing it from polluting nearby land and water.

The key features of a sanitary landfill include:

  • Liners: Layers of clay and plastic at the bottom and on the sides of the landfill that prevent leachate from leaking into the soil.
  • Leachate treatment: A holding tank where leachates are collected and treated with chemicals so that they do not pollute water supplies.
  • Monitoring wells: Wells in close proximity to the landfill are tested regularly to ensure that pollutants are not leaching into the water.
  • Compacted layers: Waste is compacted in layers to prevent it from settling unevenly. Layers are lined with plastic or clean soil.
  • Vent pipes: These pipes allow the gases produced as waste decomposes - namely methane and carbon dioxide - to vent into the atmosphere and prevent fires and explosions.

When a landfill is full, it's covered with a clay cap to keep rainwater from entering. Some are reused as parks or recreation areas, but government regulations prohibit the reuse of this land for housing or agricultural purposes.


Another way that solid waste is treated is by reclaiming the raw materials within the waste stream and reusing them to make new products. Recycling reduces the amount of waste that must be burned or buried. It also takes some pressure off of the environment by reducing the need for new resources, such as paper and metals. The overall process of creating a new process from a reclaimed, recycled material also uses less energy than the creation of a product using new materials.

Fortunately, there are a lot of materials in the waste stream - such as oil, tires, plastic, paper, glass, batteries, and electronics - that can be recycled. Most recycled products fall within four key groups: metal, plastic, paper, and glass.

Metal: The metal in most aluminum and steel cans is 100 percent recyclable, meaning that it can be completely reused over and over again to make new cans. Yet every year, Americans throw away more than $1billion in aluminum cans.

Plastic: Plastic is made from the solid materials, or resins, left over after oil (a fossil fuel) has been refined to make gasoline. These resins are then heated and stretched or molded to make everything from bags to bottles to jugs. These plastics are easily collected from the waste stream and converted into new products.

Paper: Most paper products can only be recycled a few times as recycled paper is not as strong or sturdy as virgin materials. But for every metric ton of paper that is recycled, 17 trees are saved from logging operations. 

Glass: Glass is one of the easiest materials to recycle and reuse because it can be melted down over and over again. It is also less expensive to make glass from recycled glass than it is to make it from new materials because the recycled glass can be melted at a lower temperature.

If you aren't already recycling materials before they hit your trash can, now is a good time to start. As you can see, every item that gets hauled away in your trash causes an impact on the planet.