Where Does All the Garbage Go?

You probably don't think twice about your garbage after it hits the trash can. On trash pickup day in your neighborhood, you push your can out to the curb, and a big truck comes to haul it all away. You don't have to think about it again.

But have you ever wondered just where all of those takeout containers, milk cartons, baby diapers, and newspapers wind up after the trash truck carts them away? About 32.5 percent of the trash is recycled or composted and 12.5 percent is burned, but the majority (55 percent) is buried in landfills.


Most people think that a landfill is a simple hole in the ground where trash is dumped and buried. If that's your idea of a landfill, you may wonder why it is important to compost food scraps or recycle paper. After all, these items will just break down in the landfill, right? Wrong.

Landfills are actually specifically designed to keep items from breaking down. In order to prevent ground, water, and air pollution, trash in land-fills must be isolated from the environment, so landfills have a bottom liner made from either clay or plastic and they are covered daily with soil to prevent contact with air and moisture.

The three necessary components for decomposition, sunlight, moisture, and oxygen, are purposefully kept out of a landfill to minimize leaks into the environment. Under these conditions, trash will not decompose much.

The strategy for reducing trash is simple, and you've probably heard it a thousand times: reduce, reuse, and recycle, with recycling as the last resort. For example, you could buy water by the gallon and toss the plastic jugs in the recycle bin. But a better idea is to use a water filter and reusable containers to eliminate the waste altogether.

Breaking It Down

How long does it take for trash to decompose in a landfill? Longer than you think! Isolation from the environment makes it very difficult for most items to decompose in the landfill.

According to rough estimates compiled from the U.S. National Park Service, United States Composting Council, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Sciences, and the New York City government, here's how long it takes these common trash items to breakdown:

  • Aluminum cans: 80–200 years

  • Cigarette butts: 1–5 years

  • Food scraps: 2 months–20 years

  • Glass: Unknown (too long to count!)

  • Newspaper: 2–4 weeks

  • Plastics: 500+ years

As you can see, just because you toss these items in the trash can does not mean that they are gone for good. In fact, most of these items will remain in the environment so long that your grandchildren may end up dealing with them!


A little over 12 percent of the nation's trash is sent to incinerator facilities to be burned rather than buried. Waste that takes a turn through an incinerator is burned down to ash that is then buried in a landfill. Incinerators do reduce the volume of waste left lying around, but they create a number of additional environmental concerns. In essence, they convert solid waste into hazardous ash and gas particles.

Incinerator facilities are required by law to use special gadgets called scrubbers and filters to remove tiny toxins from the incinerated before they are released into the air. A small number of incinerator facilities also recover recyclables before waste is tossed into the combustion chamber.

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