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Where Does All the Trash Go?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S.’s municipal solid waste (MSW) has risen from 88.1 million tons in 1960 to 292.4 million tons in 2018. Trash was generated at an average of 2.68 pounds per person per day in 1960, rising to 4.9 pounds in recent years. With the amount of garbage the U.S. generates, you might be wondering what happens to all that trash. Once it leaves your home waste bins, what happens next? Without keeping your eyes on it, you likely aren’t aware of the journey it takes once you toss it in the bin. So, where does our garbage go? Here’s what happens to trash once it’s taken into the waste management process.

Are There Different Types of Waste?

First, note that there are different types of trash, and there’s a different protocol for each type. Waste can be defined as anything that’s unwanted or unusable, though many items end up in the garbage that could still be used or wanted by someone. The most common categories that waste is split into include:

  • Solid waste (furniture, clothes, etc.)
  • Liquid waste (detergents, beverages, etc.)
  • Recyclable waste (paper, metal, plastics, etc.)
  • Electronic waste (computers, modems, etc.)
  • Hazardous waste (bodily fluids, certain chemicals, etc.)
  • Organic waste (food, plant matter, etc.)

Each of these waste types undergoes different means of disposal based on safety guidelines.

Where Does All the Trash Go First?

In addition to each type of waste taking different disposal routes, different regions of the U.S. also vary in how they process trash. Where garbage ends up differs between regions, states, and cities. Some cities recycle more than they send to landfills, but most of the U.S. sends their trash to some sort of landfill. However, before trash can be disposed of, it needs to be sorted. There are two different types of sorting facilities.


Transfer Station

Transfer stations are temporary holding facilities for trash. It’s where that garbage truck that comes to empty your bins likely takes your trash. Once at a transfer station, waste will be compacted and prepared for its next location, then loaded into larger trucks that will take it where it needs to go based on the waste type.


Materials Recovery Facility (MRFs)

Recovery facilities are where trash gets sorted into waste types. There are two types of recovery facilities: clean and dirty. Clean MRFs handle recyclables that have already been sorted by homes or businesses. Dirty MRFs process recyclable waste that is mixed with trash and requires more labor to sort.


diagram explaining where trash goes


Where Does the Garbage End Up?

Once the trash is properly sorted, it will be loaded onto trucks and taken to its final destination. Final destinations for waste can include the following.



Landfills are probably the destination you think of first. There are thousands of landfills in the U.S., and most waste ends up there. Landfills store waste, but they don’t break it down. Most wastes sent there will eventually decompose, but the process is slow. There are drains and pipes that run throughout a landfill to collect any contaminated fluid runoff from the garbage (which is an environmental plus), and the trash is stored in layers lined with clay and covered in a sort of plastic skin. This covering decreases oxygen’s ability to break down the waste.


Recycling Centers

Another large portion of trash will end up in recycling centers. The goal at these facilities is to give waste items a new purpose by using them to manufacture new items. Items that can be recycled include:

  • Plastics 
  • Bottles
  • Glass
  • Cardboard
  • Paper products
  • Newspapers
  • Metals
  • Certain textiles
  • Certain electronics 

While many textiles and electronics can be recycled, they must be sorted through special facilities. Though the popularity of recycling has increased over the years, so has the contamination of recyclable materials. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, about 25% of the materials we try to recycle are too contaminated with non-recyclable products. Where does trash go then? Well, while you may put your trash in the recycling bin, it still may end up in a landfill if you haven’t followed appropriate recycling requirements.


Compost Stations

Composting is another way to handle waste more sustainably. Many municipalities offer compost pick up and will give you a designated compost waste bin. You can toss in organic items like fruits, vegetables, eggshells, plant matter, pet hair, food waste, and more, which will break down into nutrient-rich matter. Where does the garbage go once it’s broken down into reusable organic matter? These items break down into materials that can be used to fertilize gardens, flower beds, etc.


Waste-to-Energy Center

Lastly, solid waste can be sent to waste-to-energy facilities. There, garbage is burned, and the gas byproducts can be captured to generate heat and electricity. In fact, enough electricity can be generated in one year from this method to power millions of homes. There are two approaches to this method: trash incinerators and anaerobic digesters.


Trash Incinerators

Trash incinerators are large industrial furnaces that burn solid municipal waste. The combustion chambers in a trash incinerator burn at a temperature of 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to turn any garbage to ash. This approach is incredibly helpful at reducing waste that ends up in landfills while helping generate usable heat and electricity.


Anaerobic Digesters

Anaerobic digestion is a biological process that uses microorganisms to turn organic materials into energy and fertilizer. This process happens in large tanks called anaerobic digesters, often found on farms. Some digesters accept food waste from restaurants and grocery stores in addition to organic waste.


Why It’s Important to Pay Attention to Where Trash Goes

With the amount of trash generated every day around the world, and with high volumes ending up in landfills, it’s critical for everyone to play a part in reducing waste and seeing that it’s disposed of in the most sustainable ways. 

TurboHaul plays a crucial role at the beginning stages of the waste stream that determines where your trash goes. Most waste management companies do not take atypical or bulky items that don’t easily fit in dumpsters or compactors, leaving many homeowners and property managers not knowing how to get rid of these items. This is where TurboHaul comes in.  TurboHaul will rescue you from these items to make sure they are responsibly disposed of.  When we pick them up, we first try to donate or recycle these items to keep them out of the waste stream altogether. If they have in fact reached the end of their useful life and cannot be recycled, we will bring them to a transfer station or MRF, and occasionally directly to the landfill.  

Our services and processes help both homeowners and commercial property owners properly dispose of bulk trash in an effort to accumulate as little waste as possible. Learn more about how we work and how you can get a free quote or book an appointment to have your waste collected by TurboHaul.

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