Know What Happens to Your Waste

published Oct 10, 2018
2 min read

Waste Can

Most people view taking out the trash as a necessary chore. We don’t like doing it but understand there’s no choice. But, have you ever thought about what happens to the things you discard or recycle after taking them to a facility or participating in a curbside pickup program? The answer varies depending on the type of item and even where you live. Let’s take a closer look at where — and how — waste ends up.

Lots of Waste Goes to Landfills in Many Places

Data indicates the waste sent to landfills in the United Kingdom has increased by 446,000 tons per year since 2003, representing a 15 per cent increase. Even though the overall recycling rate in the United Kingdom is more than 71 per cent, analysts say the region still needs to make progress. They point out the recycling rate is evening out instead of increasing, and authorities aren’t doing enough to control what’s sometimes referred to as the United Kingdom’s “waste mountain.”

In the United States, more than 50 per cent of waste ends up in landfills. However, some progressive cities including Seattle and San Francisco recycle more than gets sent to dumps.

Information collected in 2014 for European Union countries revealed that 47 per cent of the waste generated that year went to landfills, and 36 per cent was recycled.

You Can Take Waste to Special Facilities or Participate in Dedicated Programs

Waste management representatives from many cities around the world aim to make things as straightforward as possible for people who want to get rid of waste responsibly.

Regions in the United Kingdom offer separate facilities where business customers and households can bring their waste. Then, workers at those sites recycle as much of it as possible. It’s best for users to separate the items beforehand to save the employees time and minimise the possibility of recyclable pieces of waste getting overlooked.

In the U.S., many cities offer single-stream recycling for residents, meaning they can put all recyclable items into one bin. That’s undoubtedly convenient, but some places have rolled back those programs due to Chinese tariffs that affect them because China is a significant recipient of some recycled materials from the United States.

Using Trash for Energy Purposes

Recycling is something positive you can do to reduce CO2 emissions and offset energy usage. The energy saved by recycling 100 cans could power your bedroom lights for two weeks. With that in mind, some communities put trash into incinerators that contribute to energy generation.

A couple of counties in Minnesota mandated all non-recyclable trash goes to incinerators as of 2018. That approach could provide enough electricity for 20,000 homes. But, the program could cause garbage pickup rates to rise by as much as 10 per cent.

As such, the respective companies reached out to their customers to explain the reason for the price hike. Representatives in the participating Minnesotan destinations are also looking for better solutions, such as converting trash to biofuel.

Recyclables Don’t Always Get Recycled

If burned waste doesn’t get sorted properly, recyclables get incinerated, and that outcome is far from ideal. Researchers believe incineration is a factor contributing to the flattening recycling participation in the United Kingdom mentioned above. Government bodies there abide by a “waste hierarchy” dictating that only non-recyclable waste goes to incinerators.

Unfortunately, determining if something is suitable for recycling isn’t straightforward or efficient. Some parties put all waste into black trash bags and burn it without thoroughly checking for recyclable items.

Similarly, other countries have dealt with recycling fraud. Such incidents have been particularly common when firms claim to recycle toxic waste but actually handle it in other — very irresponsible — ways.

Clothes May Go to Other Countries

Answering the question of what happens to discarded clothes is more complicated than you may think. When people take unwanted clothes to charity shops, shoppers can buy them for drastically discounted rates and help out community organisations at the same time. Then, when individuals drop clothing at designated points, they could end up in textile recycling facilities and eventually make their way to countries in Africa or European countries such as the Czech Republic.

However, the majority of people in Great Britain who responded to a poll said they just threw clothing away immediately. That means approximately 235 million garments end up in landfills each spring. Before throwing your clothes away, it’s important to see if you can donate clothing or ensure it’ll get recycled.

Waste Management Is Complex

This brief overview of what happens to waste emphasises that the outcomes can vary greatly depending on places, procedures and materials. However, people can be responsible for waste and keep the planet’s future in mind by taking it upon themselves to determine the most sustainable ways to treat their waste.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability freelance writer and blogger from Lancaster, PA. Check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter for the latest updates.