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FALL 2007

Following the Waste Stream

Trash truckWe try to choose reusables over disposables, and recycle and compost everything we can. But every week, there’s always something left that gets taken “away” by the garbage trucks: stiff plastic packaging from just about any new purchase; incandescent light bulbs recently replaced with compact fluorescents; wrappers from Fair Trade chocolate; assorted tissues and dust; waxy boxes from Chinese takeout; a deodorant canister. In our recycling bins sit magazines, containers from organic yogurt, soda cans, glass bottles from organic olive oil.

Americans generate more than four pounds of trash per person, per day, according to the EPA. Where is all of this garbage going? We might like to imagine that our trash is forever thrown “away,” but ultimately, there is no “away.” All of our trash continues to exist in the world—with serious consequences for people and the planet.

From Curb to Landfill

On the whole, a little more than half of America’s household garbage goes to landfills. The rest goes to incinerators, recycling centers, or composting facilities.

While garbage pickup is generally organized by the local government, it changes hands at a transfer station and becomes the responsibility of private haulers, who are paid by the ton to take it away. Transfer stations, which are often located in low-income neighborhoods at the edges of cities, are large warehouses where tons of garbage are dumped by collection trucks and repacked into trucks, barges, and rail cars for their journey to the landfill or incinerator. The garbage thrown away by city dwellers may travel to a distant landfill several states away—many solid waste companies have paid rural towns to landfill garbage from larger urban areas.

At every step, trash headed for the landfill takes a heavy toll on the environment: there is pollution generated by the fleets of diesel-powered trucks that transport it. Then, there’s landfill gas. The decomposition that takes place in a well-mixed compost bin can’t happen in landfills, because the oxygen-breathing microbes that decompose garbage can’t breathe more than eight feet below the surface. In the absence of oxygen, anaerobic bacteria eat the garbage instead, producing climate warming methane and carbon dioxide, and water. Besides being a potent greenhouse gas, the methane that rises off landfills is highly flammable and contributes to local smog.

A landfill’s most significant environmental impact is the fluid that drains off the garbage. This liquid, known as leachate, is a toxic “juice” of the chemicals that erode off of electronics, pet waste, nail polish remover, food waste, cleaning products, batteries, and more. One sample of the leachate coming off a landfill in New Jersey, for example, contained oil and grease, cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, silver, mercury, and zinc. Numerous studies have demonstrated that living near a landfill has negative health consequences.

Since the 1990s, the EPA has required landfill operators to collect methane and to control leachate by lining landfills. Some landfill operators collect methane for energy (see box, p. 11); others simply “flare,” or burn, the methane to reduce greenhouse gases, smog, and risk of fire. But in the case of leachate, there is no permanent solution: every landfill leaks eventually. The EPA only requires landfill owners to check water quality and methane buildup for 30 years after a landfill closes, but that landfill will threaten air quality and groundwater for thousands of years, according to G. Fred Lee, whose environmental consulting firm specializes in landfills.

In decades past, many buildings had their own incinerators out back where garbage was simply burned. Incineration has fallen out of fashion since the 1980s, when community opposition successfully defeated dozens of proposed new incinerators in New York, California, and elsewhere. But 13 percent of America’s garbage is still burned. Modern-day incinerators are enormous columns the size of an office building, where thousands of tons of garbage a day burn at 3,000°F temperatures. They have pollution controls on their smokestacks, and many recover at least some energy from the process through “waste-to energy” technology. That said, incinerators still cause serious environmental problems—burning plastic produces carcinogenic dioxin and leaves behind ash laced with heavy metals. This ash is buried in landfills, where it contributes to dangerous leachate.

There are 9,000 curbside recycling programs across the country, a growing number of which are “single stream” programs in which residents place empty glass bottles, aluminum cans, and plastic containers together in their bins.

So how does all that mixed-up recycling get sorted out? The bins are collected, often again by municipalities, and brought to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). In a MRF (rhymes with “smurf”), creative mechanical processes like blasts of air and magnetized devices sort recyclables. Teams of workers do the remaining sorting manually.

How much of what the MRF collects ends up being recycled? Though many of us now combine many different materials for “recycling,” some materials are truly recyclable over the long-term, while others can only be diverted from the landfill once or twice. Glass and aluminum are perpetually recyclable, while paper can be “downcycled” several times into lower-grade products. Plastics can usually only be “downcycled” once into a different material that is not itself recyclable.

The markets for various materials fluctuate, and MRFs end up landfilling or incinerating some “residuals”—a share of whatever they collect that cannot by recycled or sold for recycling. A 2006 study of MRF residuals across California found that MRFs send between 6 and 14 percent of the recyclables they receive to the trash, particularly paper and plastic. The fate of plastic “recycling” is particularly questionable—most plastics #3–7 are not recycled at all. Some MRFs will sell bales of mixed plastics to developing countries, especially in Asia, where they may be recycled, but are often burned or dumped unsafely.

Compared to landfilling or incineration, recycling is a significantly better deal for the environment. For just about all materials, recycling waste into a new product saves significant energy over creating the material from scratch. (See chart above for energy saved by recycling.)

Unfortunately, US landfills are full of recyclable materials. As of 2005, 79 percent of all aluminum, 78 percent of glass, half of the paper, and 95 percent of plastic in household garbage was going out with regular trash, instead of being put into a recycling bin, according to the EPA.

Aerobic decomposition can turn organic wastes into rich soil —but not in airtight landfills. Municipal composting facilities give organic waste an opportunity to decompose aerobically. Few municipalities offer curbside composting, but many regions have privately run composting centers, and many individuals have reduced their own waste with backyard or worm composters. In large municipal composters, biodegrading refuse is kept aerated and moist in long cylinders. The compost is allowed to reach temperatures as high as 130°F, at which the decomposition accelerates. The compost is ventilated, stirred, and “cured” systematically, and sold by the pound to gardeners as rich mulch. (Composting food waste does release some CO2, but this is a fraction of the global warming impact that the same garbage would have if it were landfilled, where it would produce more potent methane while decomposing anaerobically.) Many municipal composters will also accept bio-plastics. Look for a composter near you at

Towards Zero Waste
Increasingly, some community groups have set their sights on a visionary goal: zero waste. The idea invites us all to think beyond our own trash cans. What if businesses considered waste before they designed a disposable single-use product, or packaged a product in stiff clear plastic? How would businesses, governments, and consumers have to work together to create a world in which we truly didn’t have to generate waste at all?

“Garbage should worry us,” writes Elizabeth Royte in Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash (Back Bay Books, 2006). “…We don’t need a better way to get rid of things. We need to not get rid of things, either by keeping them cycling through the system—or by not designing and desiring them in the first place.”


—Joelle Novey



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