the biggest failures of modern governments. Around 95% of our solid waste is thrown directly in landfills, even though most of it could be easily recycled¹. This equates to a gigantic 2.12 billion tons of waste every year. Around 45 thousand tons of plastic are dumped in the ocean annually, contributing to the death of millions of marine organisms. In order to better understand what happens to our garbage after we throw it in the trash can, we need to explore every step of the disposal process.
Step 1: You fill your trash bin and place it on the curb to be removed
For most of us rubbish disposal begins with walking to the rubbish bin and placing trash inside it, and ends when we wheel the bin out to the roadside to be collected the garbage man. Some people who live in rural or remote areas may have to take their rubbish directly to the tip, but only a very small portion².
Step 2: The garbage collection man comes
At regular intervals, depending on where you live, the trash collector will come and pick up your trash. If you are lucky enough to live in an area where recycling occurs, then you will need to separate recyclables and normal trash. Unfortunately, many people don’t do this, which leads to the waste of many natural resources which could have been saved by recycling².
Step 3: The garbage is unloaded at a transfer station
When the garbage man’s truck is full, he will usually unload it at a transfer station. The transfer station has a number of functions, depending on its location and on the disposal policies of the local government.
In many transfer stations, household rubbish will be sorted to remove anything that may be recycled. However, this involves intensive labour, and often poses health risks to workers. Things like plastic bottles, paper, metal, and items still in good condition can be removed to prevent unnecessary things going to landfill. In some places, items such as furniture, bicycles, or old books and CDs are sold in a ‘tip shop’ at bargain prices³.
Once the recyclables have been removed from the general trash, then they are sorted further to enable efficient disposal. Metals, plastics, glass, and paper products are all separated. Once everything has been sorted, the trash must then be taken to its final destination.
Step 4a: Landfil
In many places, non-recyclable garbage is disposed of using the traditional method of landfills. In a landfill, trash is basically buried, layer after layer, and left to decompose naturally – something which can take thousands of years for certain plastics and glass⁴.
Step 4b: Incinerator
In some places, waste is treated in an incineration plant. This involves the combustion of the organic substances contained in waste materials, and can greatly reduce the garbage volume. Incineration converts waste products into ash, gas, and heat. The ash is generally composed of the inorganic components of the waste, while the gas is primarily made of water vapour and carbon dioxide combined with others. Before this mixture is released into the atmosphere, it must be filtered to remove any solid particles or polluting gases. In certain cases, the heat generated by incineration plants can be used to generate electricity, which is just one way of turning our garbage into a useful product⁵.
Step 4c: Recycling Centre
Any recyclables which were sorted from the waste in the transfer centre are then taken to the recycling centre for treatment. Here, waste products are converted into reusable materials, which prevents the loss of precious natural resources to landfill. Many countries are continually striving to increase the proportion of their wastes which are recycled, but this isn’t always an easy task. However, it is a necessary one if we have any hope of a bright future for planet earth⁶.