Where Does the Garbage Go?

Where Does The Garbage Go?

I looked into the refrigerator last week and couldn’t help but make a mental inventory of the fridge contents in the wake of Thanksgiving. We had the cranberry chutney that nobody but me liked, the sweet potatoes that time forgot, and three kinds of leftover turkey. I was pretty sure I’m wasn’t going to get around to eating all of it (wow, that’s a ‘first world problem’ if ever there was one).

It’s not just me. A 2012 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study concluded that on average, Americans eventually throw out about 40% of the food bought and sold in the US, whether from being unsalable, damaged in transit, or after sitting forlorn in refrigerators. “Consumer losses,” or food that goes unused at homes, restaurants, and other dining places accounts for the majority of food waste. That is an enormous amount, both in terms of financial cost and as an amount of material to be handled as a waste.

It isn’t always apparent, but waste management– recycling or throwing away things on a large scale— has always been a major issue in human society. Archaeologists often locate the camps of ancient Neolithic tribes thanks to the enormous mounds of oyster shells and other refuse the ancient humans left behind. In the modern world, an entire industry has grown up around it. It even influences national government policy– most of our federal environmental laws were created to deal with material that was ‘thrown out’ as a waste in one form or another, whether as municipal solid waste (“garbage”), industrial wastewater, hazardous waste, or air pollutants exhausted out of a smokestack.


When I was about four years old, my parents gave me a children’s book named Where Does the Garbage Go? It seemed like a great question at the time, but then again some pretty basic things seem like great questions when you’re four. The part of the book that sticks in my head the most was the concept of separating one type of trash from another—in this case, separating the food waste that would be fed to pigs from broken plates that had to go to the dump. This was the very early 80s, way before recycling had become the fairly routine practice it has grown into. I saw the garbage trucks come to pick up the trash barrels at the end of our driveway every week, and I often rode in my dad’s van or my uncle’s pickup truck to various town dumps to drop off garbage, old wood or carpets, or whatever else we needed to get rid of. As fascinating as ‘grown up stuff’ like a dump was, I was never allowed to get out of the truck because of the rats that lived on the garbage. Still, the question of ‘where did the garbage go’ stuck with me.

Where, How Much, and What Color?

So where does the garbage go go in 2014?

Things have changed a lot since the early 80s, and they continue to change, with an increasing push towards recycling. In the 1990s there were about 150 landfills in Massachusetts, my home state, but as of December 2014, fewer than twenty landfills are still open in Massachusetts.

According to Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s (MassDEP’s) 2013 Solid Waste Master Plan, 42% of the solid waste the state generated in 2009 was recycled, one of the highest recycling rates in the country. This amounts to about 5 million tons of waste, or the annual capacity of a dozen large landfills. The total amount of waste produced, including what was recycled, dropped over 17% between 2000 and 2009 (from 12,960,000 tons to 10,740,000 tons).

About 20% of this total is organic material, much of which is food waste. Massachusetts recently enacted a first-in-the-nation requirement that food waste from restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and other facilities that generate more than a ton of food waste per month be recycled –composted, used as animal food, or sent to a waste-to-energy facility rather than landfilled. This proposition received almost no opposition, and gathered almost universal support from municipalities, the solid waste industry, environmental NGOs, and business associations.  Massachusetts already requires that construction and demolition (C&D) waste, scrap metal, wood waste, tires, and recyclable cardboard and paper be recycled rather than landfilled.

Recycling Pays
The side benefits of this recycling are huge. By 2009, Massachusetts’ recycling efforts had:

  • Reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1.8 million tons of carbon equivalent per year;
  • Saved 70 trillion BTUs of energy, equivalent to the annual energy consumption of more than 12 million barrels of oil or nearly 600 million gallons of gasoline; and
  • Avoided the use of 1.1 million tons of iron ore, coal, limestone and other natural resources. (via Environmental Benefits Calculator, Northeast Recycling Council, April 2009)
  • Supported an estimated 14,000 jobs worth on the order of $500 million in payroll. (U.S. Recycling Information Study, prepared for the Northeast Recycling Council, February 2009.

So for the long run, the question is not so much whether we can afford to keep recycling, as what it would cost us not to recycle.