Waste Sorting and the Trash Cycle
Aside from those few that have chosen the zero-waste lifestyle, the rest of the planet works together to produce around 258 million tons of waste in the US alone year after year. And most people don’t think about the trash they leave behind once it gets picked up from their home or office. But after their disposal, all of your garbage, including any old magazines or empty food containers, will still have a long way to go.
So let’s go over every step, from the waste transfer station right to the landfill processing. This article should give you a better idea of what will happen to your trash after it gets thrown away.
So What Happens to Our Garbage and Recycling?
How Is Garbage Actually Collected for Processing
You’re probably already familiar with this particular step of the garbage cycle, regardless of whether we’re talking about dumpster service at your office or the usual curbside trash pickup you have set up at home. The trash is picked up by a hauler that then transports it to either a landfill or a transfer station. But after that, did you know that it will have to travel quite a lot?
But How are Recyclables Separated From Normal Trash?
A waste transfer station will be in charge of sorting recyclables from trash and other materials, accepting them in bulk sorting them in categories and then sending them to either a landfill or a recycling center based on what is appropriate for each. There is one more reason why waste sorting is a must: conserving resources. Heavy collection trucks won’t have to drive a longer distance to the landfill.
As soon as the household trash gets to the transfer station, it will be stored so that metal, paper, plastic bottles, or other recyclable items will be removed. This process will require a lot of work and workers will usually be required to wear face protection and hazmat suits to keep themselves away from any health risks.
As you know, there are a lot of states that have mandatory recycling laws already in place, and the United States is right there on top with around 100 million tons of waste recycled year after year.
Recyclable materials will be sent to a nearby recycling center as soon as they are separated, where they will be prepared to be reused in the future.
There are even some locations that will keep items like books, bicycles, or furniture, as long as they are in good condition, so they can be sent to secondhand stores to be resold.
There are also quite a few facilities that will use more than one sorting technique when it comes to recyclables. These can be anything from sorting things manually to putting the material through a NIR, which is a near-infra-red line or optical line to sort the polymer from plastics.
All items made of the same materials will be baled together during this sorting stage. At this point, the items put into the recyclable list will be ready to become new materials, which means that they will be saved from going to the landfill.
So re-processors will buy materials and sort them again by density, color, and other features. Polymers, for example, will be shredded down into smaller sizes, then washed, and then added as a commodity on the plastics market. It will be purchased by other product manufacturers and then used as a raw material.
A lot of cities are increasing the availability of recycling bins and incentivizing businesses to recycle materials in higher percentages nowadays. One example is the Phoenix Green Business Leaders Program which had a lot of businesses participating, working together to divert 18 million pounds of recyclables. The goal behind this was to increase their rates of diversion year after year.
Now on to Landfills: What Happens To The Trash There?
Most places will have all of the non-recyclable garbage sent directly to a landfill. The difference between older landfills and more modern ones is that the new ones would have complex drainage systems and the trash would be layered strategically using complex liners, so that it can decompose easily and naturally, without having an immense environmental impact. Full landfills will then be capped and covered using two feet or more of soil. This not only protects the environment from the contaminants inside the landfill but also prevents the migration of debris.
You might also like my articles on whether you can recycle rubber, styrofoam, or hangers.
EPA also requires all landfills to monitor organic compounds from the non-methane category that would escape into the atmosphere. Among the health problems that these compounds can cause, smog seems to be the most noticeable for both people and the animals that live around. There is a current threshold for treatment that the EPA has set, and it stands at about 50 metric tons per year. This is quite the threshold, because most of the time, smaller, or more dispersed landfills aren’t even affected by it. It only has an effect on the large landfills that are on a regional level.
Most of the time, your garbage will reach the end of its road in a landfill. Keep in mind that there are still some areas that have eco-friendly alternatives. These are centers for incineration, anaerobic digestion, or composting.
How Would Waste-to-Energy Plants Work?
If you live in an eco-friendly community, chances are that your waste will be sent to a type of waste-to-energy plant, like an incineration facility. This is where it will be converted into heat, gas, and ash, with the help of the combustion of organic substances. The gases and ashes won’t be released back into the atmosphere until any harmful gases and solid particles will be removed with the help of filters. Your trash can also be turned into something useful for the whole community because the heat resulting from incineration can actually be turned into electricity.
Does Plastic Pollution Affect the Surrounding Environment?
There is also trash that doesn’t make it to a garbage bin. When this is the case, this trash will pollute all rivers, lakes, or other places, and at some point, it might even get into the ocean, where it will have an impact on the marine life, contaminating food sources, damaging the ecosystem, and making the life of the inhabitants of the water a lot harder. To have a better understanding of the issue, you should know that based on the calculations made by a group of scientists and 5 Gyres, there are around 5.25 trillion particles of plastic which amount to around 268,000 metric tons, on the ocean’s surface. This was added to the Global Estimate OF Marine Plastic Pollution index they made in 2014. Scientists call this abundance of plastic that can be found in our oceans plastic smog.
And a big part of all of the plastic you can find in the ocean will come from very badly designed products made on land, but also from waste management systems that have a hard time dealing with these badly designed products. As you have probably guessed already, single-use throwaway packaging is one of the most common forms of plastic pollution you can find on beaches around the world.
If you want to give a helping hand in stopping debris like plastic from getting into natural habitats and ocean waters, you should try to reduce the amount of trash you create and dispose of any trash you do end up creating in a responsible way.
How Can You Reduce The Trash and Save Energy?
When handling, processing, and sorting any type or amount of waste, a lot of resources will be sued from transportation to the final treatment. The collection and then transportation of your trash is what will consume most of the energy related to the handling of waste. But if you were to take into account all the energy needed to produce, transport, and then decompose the waste before and after a consumer uses a product, this energy is just a small fraction of the total energy needed.
You can’t rely only on the landfill to keep your environment safe. You can also try to do your part, by reducing the waste created inside your home or office.
Here are some steps you can follow to reduce the amount of garbage you’re creating:
- Try to get more quality products that will have a longer lifespan to reduce the number of times you will have to replace them.
- Do a little preparation before ordering your products so you make sure you get anything you need in one go, to reduce packaging and the waste that would result from it.
- Try to only get items you really need and are useful in your life and avoid those impulse buys of fads or trendy objects as a way of reducing the waste produced by them when you no longer use them.
- Properly recycle your trash when possible and make sure you reuse items when possible.
I have a lot of other interesting articles on recycling and waste reduction so make sure you read other pieces of content from this blog.