Following the Waste Stream

Following the Waste Stream

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 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 (see box, below). 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—if at all—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.

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

Toward s 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.

Recycling Saves Energy

Making a product out of recycled materials save resources over mining and manufacturing the virgin material—consequently, it also saves energy. That energy savings translates into fewer greenhouse gases generated to make recycled products. Manufacturing this from uses this much less energy over recycled materials ... manufacturing the virgin product

Aluminum 95% less
Steel 80% less
Plastic 80% less
Paper 64% less
Glass 50% less


Garbage as Fuel?
Generating energy from waste is possible, but it’s not usually a win for the environment. Here’s what you need to know:

Waste -to-Energ y (WTE): Waste-to-Energy plants are more sophisticated incinerators that generate energy by burning trash. A 3,000°F fire heats a tank of water, and the rising steam turns the blades of a turbine generator. According to Elizabeth Royte in Garbage Land (Back Bay Books, 2006), 89 WTE facilities in 27 states burn 13 percent of the nation’s garbage. WTEs reduce the weight of trash to be landfilled by 75% while generating energy.

Even with advanced pollution controls, WTEs can’t entirely keep toxic byproducts out of the air, and dangerous metals concentrate in the ash at the bottom of the pyre. The toxic ash is buried in household waste landfills, where it eventually pollutes groundwater. Capturing La ndf ill Gas (LFG) as Fuel: Landfill gas can be collected in a central location through a series of wells and piping. From there, it can simply be burned, used to power a generator or other energy user directly, or upgraded to pipeline-quality natural gas. As of January 2005, there were more than 400 LFG projects in the US, according to the Northwest Public Power Association Bulletin, and the EPA has developed a Landfill Methane Outreach Program to encourage the use of landfill gas as an energy source. While these LFG projects qualify for federal and many state “alternative energy” incentives, and the EPA celebrates LFG as “renewable energy,” some environmental groups argue that since methane emissions are a polluting side effect of the landfill business, garbage companies should be required to handle that pollution responsibly, rather than being rewarded for doing so.

Recycle or Downcycle?
Even though we may toss all sorts of materials in our recycling bins, not all of it is recycled into the same kind of product. Much of it is, instead, downcycled into a lesser kind of product, which often cannot be recycled again.


When you “recycle”    

This is what happens to it          

It may become       

So is it recycled, or downcycled?



It’s still aluminum.


Cans, auto parts, cookware.

Recycled! You can recycle it again.



It’s still steel.


Steel cans, beams, and more.


Recycled! You can recycle it again.



It’s still glass.

Bottles, tiles, marbles, asphalt,

and more.


Recycled! You can recycle it again.


Office paper               

The fibers shorten every time you put them through the recycling process, until they cannot be reused.

Recycled content paper,

grocery bags, cardboard, newspapers,

magazines, egg cartons,

home insulation.


Downcycled. May go through 6-12 more cycles, and when the fibers

become too short to reuse, the remainder is landfilled.



See above.

Currogated cardboard, paperboard.

Downcycled. May go through a few more cycles, and when the fibers become too short to reuse, the remainder is landfilled.

Plastic #1                 

(PET or PETE)s

It’s turned into a new

substance that’s not recyclable.


“Fleece” jackets, carpet,

fractional component of more #1 plastic.

Downcycled. After one cycle, it generally

is no longer recyclable and then is landfilled when thrown away.


Plastics #2 (HDPE)

It’s turned into a new

substance that’s not recyclable.

Railroad ties.


Downcycled. After one cycle, it’s no

longer recyclable and is then landfilled

when thrown away.


Plastics #3–7

These are rarely recyclable,

unless the manufacturer makes a special effort to take its products back. (See. p. 36 for

how Stonyfield Farms m  and Recycline  take back and recycle their #5 plastic products.)




Rarely recycled nor downcycled. Even

when recycling programs accept these

plastics, they are most likely doing so

to simplify the program for customers,

and will send these plastics to landfills

or incinerators.


Plastic Bags

Some stores accept them

for “recycling”—they may actually be recycled, or, most likely, they may be shipped overseas

and incinerated or landfilled.


Plastic lumber ... or trash.


Sometimes downcycled, but most

often, plastic bags are shipped overseas,

where they’re incinerated or landfilled.

Make a commitment today to avoid

plastic bags and bring your own cloth

bags when you shop.




21 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Recycle

For all of you out there who’ve asked us how to recycle or compost assorted items over the years, here’s our list to post on your refrigerator door and copy to share with friends. Enjoy!

1. Appliances: Goodwill accepts working appliances,, or you can contact the Steel Recycling Institute to recycle them: 800/YES-1-CAN,
2. Batteries: Rechargeables and single-use: Battery Solutions, 734/467-9110,
3. Cardboard boxes: Contact local nonprofits and women’s shelters to see if they can use them. Or, offer them up at your local listserv or on If your workplace collects at least 100 boxes or more boxes each month, m accepts them for resale.
4. CDs/DVDs/Game Disks: Send scratched music or computer CDs, DVDs, and PlayStation or Nintendo video game disks to AuralTech for refinishing, and they’ll work like new: 888/454-3223, For recycling, see “Technotrash.”
5. Clothes: Wearable clothes can go to your local Goodwill outlet or women’s shelter. Donate wearable women’s business clothing to Dress for Success, which gives them to low-income women as they search for jobs, 212/532-1922, www.dressfor Offer unwearable clothes and towels to local animal boarding and shelter facilities, which often use them as pet bedding.
6. Compact fluorescent bulbs: Take them to your local IKEA store for recycling: Or, order a Sylvania RecyclePak for $15, which is a special lined box large enough for eight average CFLs. Your fee covers shipping to and recycling at Veolia Environmental Systems. To order, visit
7. Compostable bio-plastics: You’ll need to take them to a municipal composter; find one at
8. Computers and electronics: Find responsible recyclers, local and national, at
9. Exercise videos: Swap them with others at (See also “Technotrash.”)
10. Eyeglasses: Your local Lion’s Club or eye care chain may collect these. Lenses are reground and given to people in need.
11 . Foam packing peanuts: Your local pack-and-ship store will likely accept these for reuse. Or, call the Plastic Loose Fill Producers Council to find a drop-off site: 800/828-2214. For places to drop off foam blocks for recycling, contact the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, 410/451-8340,
12. Ink/toner cartridges: m pays $1/each.
13. Miscellaneous: Get your unwanted items into the hands of people who can use them. Offer them up on your local or listserv, or try giving them away at Throwplace.comm or giving or selling them at iReuse.comm. will also help you find a recycler, if possible, when your items have reached the end of their useful lifecycle.
14. Oil: Find Used Motor Oil Hotlines for each state: 202/682-8000,
15. Phones: Donate cell phones: Collective Good will refurbish your phone and sell it to people in developing countries: 770/856-9021, Call to Protect reprograms cell phones to dial 911 and gives them to domestic violence victims: Recycle single-line phones: Reclamere, 814/386-2927,
16. Sports equipment: Resell or trade it at your local Play It Again Sports outlet, 800/476-9249,
17. “Technotrash”: Easily recycle all of your CDs, jewel cases, DVDs, audio and video tapes, cell phones, pagers, rechargeable and single-use batteries, PDAs, and ink/toner cartridges with GreenDisk’s Technotrash program. For a small fee, GreenDisk will send you a cardboard box in which you can ship them up to 70 pounds of any of the above. Your fee covers the box as well as shipping and recycling fees. 800/305-GREENDISK,
18. Tennis shoes: Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program turns old shoes into playground and athletic flooring: One World Running will send still-wearable shoes to athletes in need in Africa, Latin America, and Haiti:
19. Toothbrushes and razors: Buy a recycled plastic toothbrush or razor from Recycline , and the company will
take it back to be recycled again into plastic lumber. Recycline toothbrushes and razors are made from used Stonyfield Farms’m yogurt cups. 888/354-7296,
20. Tyvek envelopes: Quantities less than 25: Send to Shirley Cimburke, Tyvek Recycling Specialist, 5401 Jefferson
Davis Hwy., Spot 197, Room 231, Richmond, VA 23234. Quantities larger than 25, call 866/33-TYVEK.
21. Stuff you just can’t recycle: When practical, send it back to the manufacturer (with a copy of our McDonough interviewon p. 26) and tell them they need to close the waste loop.