What happens to trash after it leaves the trash can?

The journey of waste, from our home to landfills

Explore in this Article

  1. What happens to trash once it leaves our homes?
  2. Recycling facilities and composters
  3. Waste-to-energy plants: Trash incinerators
  4. Anaerobic digesters
  5. What happens to trash after it reaches the landfill?
  6. How can we reduce trash and help the environment?

Have you ever wondered what happens to trash once it leaves our home? And no, it doesn’t mysteriously disappear. According to the EPA, the U.S alone generates approximately 292.4 million tons of waste which is around 4.9 pounds of waste per person per day. Out of this, about 32% of waste goes to recycling facilities and composters, 12% is burned in waste-to-energy plants, and almost 50% of the total waste goes to landfills.

What happens to trash - trash generated by the U.S in the past years

This indeed is a lot of waste in the landfill. That’s why it is extremely important to be mindful about what we should and should not put in the trash can. And also to understand what happens to trash once it leaves our homes.

What happens to trash once it leaves our homes?

The first step in processing trash is a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Here sorting takes place based on the nature of the waste and how long it will take for someone else to come along and recycle or reuse them.

The waste management companies are responsible for this process. These facilities will separate recyclable materials from non-recyclable ones like plastic bottles, food wrappers, or plastic bags. This process also helps them separate organic waste from non-organic waste like cardboard boxes or paper napkins.

What happens to trash - what goes in our trash

These materials are separated using a conveyer belt, magnets, and manual labor. The NIR (near infra-red) line separates plastics made with different kinds of polymers. This process helps to save reusable materials from going to landfills. Next, the same kinds of materials are baled together and sent for further processing.

Then the waste is then sent to various places like recycling facilities, composters, trash incinerators, anaerobic digestors, and landfills. Let’s see what happens to waste after it reaches the recycling plants, composters, trash incinerators, and anaerobic digestors.

Recycling facilities and composters

What happens to trash - materials recycled in 2018 in the US

Recyclable materials go to huge composters and recycling facilities. Things such as metals, glass, paper, and recyclable plastics are prepared to reuse in the recycling facilities.

Related Article: 8 Non-Recyclable Items That You’ve Been Recycling All This Time

Aluminum & Glass

Aluminum cans are the most recycled packaging in the world, according to Resource Recycling Systems (RSS). It is because it is 100% recyclable and turns back into the packaging and other products. Glass recycling involves crushing, melting, and mixing it with other materials such as sand or ash to turn into glass fiber and glass containers.


Similarly, recyclable plastics are recycled into new items. You can actually look at the little triangle logo on your recycled plastic items and the number on it to find how many times it is recycled. For example, if the number is 2, then the plastic used in making the product/packaging was recycled twice.

What happens to trash - Types of plastics and their codes
Greenpeace / plasticoceans.org


According to the EPA, paper is recyclable five to seven times into different items like egg cartons, berry boxes, telephone directories, building insulation, and much more. After multiple recycling, paper fibers become too short and need more virgin fibers in order to make new materials. Usually, newspapers use paper that’s recycled the most number of times.


Compostable materials like food waste and cardboard are sent to huge composters. Here the waste is turned into compost or mulch in huge composters and is used by the municipality or sold for consumer use.

Waste-to-energy plants: Trash incinerators

What happens to trash - Trash Incinerator
Pixabay / Pexels

Another place your trash reaches is waste-to-energy plants. A common way is to use incinerators; huge furnaces burn both organic and in-organic waste at very high temperatures (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). The gas byproducts like steam released in the process are collected and used to generate electricity and heat buildings.

Approximately 12% of the total trash produced in the U.S was sent to such waste to energy plants in 2018. The purpose of burning waste is not just to generate electricity but also to significantly reduce the amount the waste that ends up in landfills. This method generally uses waste that is easily combustible.

Anaerobic digesters

What happens to trash - Anaerobic digestor

Another form of the waste-to-energy plant is anaerobic digesters. These are usually a part of huge farms where organic waste is readily available. Here the process takes place with the help of microorganisms that turn organic waste into fertilizers and bio gas used to make energy.

What happens to trash after it reaches the landfill?

A landfill is the final destination for the trash we throw away. Landfills are deep holes with a clay bottom and a layer of thin plastic covering. It also has outlets to remove water and methane that the waste generates. All trash goes into the cavity, and another plastic film covers it followed by soil, dead plant, etc., and another layer of trash.

The layering continues till the landfill is completely full. Once full, the trash is left there to decompose in a low oxygen environment. It takes many years for a landfill to completely fill and the waste to completely decompose.

Trash in Landfill
Tom Fisk / Pexels

According to EPA, there are almost 2600 landfills in the U.S, spread across mostly in the in Southern and Midwestern United States. Authorities keep a check on pollution using groundwater wells near the landfills to ensure that the landfill is not contaminating the environment around.

How can we reduce trash and help the environment?

So, this was all that happens to the rubbish we throw away, and it definitely is a long journey. The waste problem is huge, but we can help the planet by reducing waste at individual levels. This does not mean you have to fit all your garbage in a mason jar. Small conscious steps can also make a huge difference, such as composting at home or reducing your carbon footprint. Let’s have a quick look at those.

Ways to reduce waste
Vlada Karpovich / Pexels

  • Skip the single-use/disposable plastics. Instead, opt for reusable options.
  • Don’t make impulsive purchases. These questions will help you shop more consciously.
  • Buy products made from recycled materials whenever possible.
  • Opt for packaging-free options whenever possible.
  • Think if the item can be reused or repurposed before you toss things in the trash can.

Related Article: 50 Simple Tips For Zero-Waste Living

Final takeaway

Remember, every bit counts. So, be more mindful of what goes in your trash can. Reduce, reuse, and recycle: these are the three R’s to remember when it comes to waste management. And they’re all equally important. Of course, you don’t have to do everything at once. Just start by making one change at a time until your habits are more sustainable.


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