Have you thrown something away today? If you are like most people the answer would be yes. Americans throw away enough garbage every day to fill 63,000 garbage trucks. That's enough garbage in a year, that if we lined the garbage trucks end to end they would reach half way to the moon. That averages to about 7 pounds per person each day.
So where does garbage come from? Where does it go? What can we do to improve the amount of garbage we create? Let's find out . . .
Garbage Comes in Two Forms
Garbage is either biodegradable or non-biodegradable. Biodegradable means that it will decay and can become soil. Yes, soil! That is all soil is anyway — decayed plants and animals. Biodegradable items are plants, plant parts, animal waste, and parts of animals, like hair, skin and muscles. Bones too, although they may take a lot longer to degrade. Paper is a good example of a good biodegradable material. It came from trees, so it falls into the "plant parts" category. If you bury a piece of paper in the flowerbed in your backyard, it will decay and in approximately three months' time, you will not be able to find it.
Non-biodegradable garbage is not going to decay ever or the decay will take thousands of years. These items are usually made from chemicals or minerals that do not break down. Aluminum foil could be buried next to that piece of paper in your back yard and it will look almost like it did the day it was buried — while the piece of paper will be decaying or maybe even gone depending upon how much time you gave the process. Plastic, glass, rubber, and aluminum cans are just a few examples of non-biodegradable trash.
View a great chart that helps you see how much time the process of decay can take (see p. 5 of this PDF).
How Does Garbage Decay?
Biodegradable matter will decay if given enough time. The time can vary depending on the density of the matter, weather conditions, location, temperature, and the number of decomposers that live in that area. What are decomposers, you ask?
Decomposers can be animals, earthworms, insects, fungus, bacteria, or any other organism that eats biodegradable matter. If you dropped an apple core on the playground at school, it would not take long before the apple core would begin to rot. Small animals may come and nibble on the remains of your apple. Some might even take the apple to their home. But even if they didn't, bacteria from your saliva would begin to digest your apple. Mold or another fungus might begin to grow on the core. Insects and birds might eat from it too. And before you know it, the apple would be gone. Some of it actually left with the creature that ate it, but some of it was reduced to humus. Or soil.
Have you ever noticed that when the leaves fall in the autumn they can pile up around doorways and under bushes? If they don't get raked and removed, that would happen year after year, after year. So why don't the doorways of some buildings have gigantic piles of leaves from decades of accumulation? Because the leaves decompose rather quickly and return to the soil. They become humus. The energy that was in that leaf when it was on the tree returns to the soil to provide for the plants that will grow there later on.
Where Does Our Garbage Go?
When we throw things away, it doesn't just sit in the garbage can. We put the big garbage can out one day a week for the garbage man. Garbage men are now called trash collectors, waste handlers, or sanitation workers. The trash is then dumped into a huge truck and hauled to the landfill in many communities. The landfill has also been called the dump, because the trash is dumped there.
At the landfill, some of the trash might be burned, some is buried under the soil and some is recycled. A lot of planning goes into the work done at a landfill. Management companies make sure that the decomposing trash does not harm people or the water system. They work hard to keep hazardous waste out of the landfill and to find ways to do all of this efficiently, safely, and cost-effectively.
Learn more about landfills at one of these sites:
Only a little more than half of all of the garbage ends up in landfills. So where does the rest go? Another 33% is recycled and the rest is burned in incinerators. Incinerators are special facilities that burn the trash down to ash. The ash is then buried in landfills. Scrubbers and filters are used to make sure that the incinerators do not release pollution during the burning process. Learn more about incinerators and how they work.
Some people use their knowledge of decomposition to make soils for their gardens. They collect the biodegradable matter from their yards and their kitchens and save it in a special container.
They add decomposers like bacteria or earthworms and keep the containers at a temperature that the decomposers enjoy. Then they stir the contents from time to time to make sure that there is always new food for the decomposers. They continue to add their grass clippings, their banana peels and their other biodegradable waste. When the time is right, they can transfer this energy-rich material to their flowerbeds or gardens to feed their plants. This humus is called compost and is great for the garden and contains no harmful chemicals that can get into our water supply. Composting is a great way to recycle.
Speaking of recycling, do you? Recycling is something that nature has done since the beginning, by turning biodegradable matter into humus. But since humans make lots of things from non-biodegradable matter, this type of trash needs special consideration.
Most public places offer recycling bins. You have probably seen them. They are usually blue or green and often have the recycling logo on them. These receptacles are designed for the special purpose of placing recyclable trash in them. This way the non-biodegradable garbage doesn't end up in the landfills. Instead, it can be reused in some way. Many containers are melted down and formed into new containers. Plastic milk jugs have been reformed into fencing or deck material. Soda cans can be recycled back into new soda cans; check out how that is done.
Along with recycling, reusing, and repurposing are also good ways to make sure non-biodegradable objects do not end up in the landfill. Most of us have gotten clothing from a brother or sister, maybe even a cousin, and worn it because it was still good but didn't fit the original owner anymore. But there are all sorts of ways that other things can be reused. Here are some:
- Use the back side of a sheet of paper instead of throwing it away when only the front side was written on.
- Keep crayons and pencils until they are no longer useful instead of throwing them away at the end of each school year.
- Reuse glass and plastic containers that food comes in. Refill them with juice or leftovers. Store those crayons or pencils in them.
- Repaint or refinish old furniture. Some people consider doing so a great hobby.
- Give to charities — those old shoes might be used by someone's dog as a chew toy!!
Find other ways to reuse and repurpose the objects around your house. Make it a challenge to see how little you can throw in the trash and leave for the garbage truck to pick up.
Some of the things that we can no longer use cannot be recycled, repurposed, or be safely put in the landfill. Old refrigerators, electronics such as computers and mobile phones, and unused paint are unsafe to throw away because they create poisonous chemicals that can get into our drinking water if they were put in a landfill. For this reason, landfills and fire departments often collect these types of garbage, and they are sent to special places where they are dismantled. The parts are then safely recycled or disposed of. Paint can be remixed and sold to charities or the chemicals can be reused in other ways.
People need to turn in their hazardous waste when they find it in their homes or garages. Insecticides, cleaning products, weed killers, medications, appliances, some types of light bulbs, and anything that is questionable, should be taken to proper agencies for disposal. They will make sure that it gets taken care of in the correct and proper way.
To learn more about hazardous waste, check out these sites:
Sewage and Wastewater
There is no way around discussing this when it comes to garbage. We all make waste!! That is why there is a bathroom in every house, school, restaurant, and hotel. That is what our body does. But where does the waste go when we flush?
Well, in most communities in the U.S. it heads down a pipe system to the sewage treatment plant. There it is treated to kill bacteria and remove harmful chemicals which can get into the system when people wash paint brushes or their cars or any other activity where chemicals might get into the sewer. Liquid waste is allowed to evaporate, which separates water from the actual waste. Water is the only part that will evaporate, so it is a great sorting system. The water may be treated further and funneled into the local water system or into a lake or the ocean. But it might also just evaporate into the air.
The solid parts are treated and bacteria is encouraged to decompose the waste. Then it is separated further and turned into fertilizer pellets or some other form of useful waste. It is very complex and takes some very skilled workers to make sure that the process does not pollute the environment. Here is a great diagram of the process if you want to know more.
In the Pacific Ocean, several huge collections of garbage lie suspended in the water. They began in the 1950s and continue to grow on a regular basis. Most of their content is plastic which is non-biodegradable. The ocean currents have gathered these trash heaps from all of the garbage which is discarded into the ocean. The currents just seem to cause the garbage to congregate in a few locations. More information at this NOAA site.
This garbage is dangerous to wildlife. Birds and some sea creatures regularly gather near the garbage island looking for food. They can get tangled in plastic bottle carriers or eat plastic pieces. The carriers can get tight around their necks or legs and cause them to choke or drown. The ingested plastic can get caught in their throats or lodge in their intestines.
These dangers are not just found in the ocean, but can happen to wildlife when garbage is thrown along the side of the road or whenever it is not disposed of properly.
Interesting Garbage Facts
- Powerful magnets are used at landfills and recycling centers to sort out metal objects.
- Plastics have numbers on the bottom of them to help recyclers identify which type of plastic the item is made out of — this helps them use the plastic for the right purpose.
- Glass keeps its color when recycled and is not usually changed — so green glass is used again as green glass in its next life.
- Recycling keeps extra carbon dioxide out of the environment.
- Some communities pay money to people who recycle when they bring in recyclable garbage.
- 41 million tires are thrown away in California each year.
- Glass never wears out and can be recycled over and over.
- It takes less energy to create paper from recycled product than it does to create paper from a tree.
A Day in the Life of your garbage and recyclables - follow your trash on its journey!
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has oodles for kids to do, including activities about garbage and trash.
Recycle City — learn about trash, recycling and the environment. Fun things to keep you thinking about a cleaner world.
Explore the 3 Rs — Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Nature's Recyclers Coloring Book — Nature has its own recycling and clean-up crew; learn how as you color.
Help Gus clean up the park in Recycle Roundup, a game from National Geographic Kids.
Visit the Kids' Page at the National Institute of Environmental Health for great ideas on how you can help reduce waste and recycle.
CalRecycle has a kids page that covers everything that kids might want to know about waste.
Kids Go Green is a fun site from the United Kingdom with games, activities, and facts for kids.
Top 10 Questions
Thanks to Ted Hutchinson, Solid Waste Deputy Director, Ada County Solid Waste Management; and Megan Durrell, Trash and Recycling Coordinator, City of Boise Public Works Department for the answers.
How does garbage affect Earth's ecosystems?
The proper management of garbage is the key to not having an adverse impact on the ecosystem. The materials that are in garbage can cause pollution in our soil, water and air. Diseases that are in garbage can be carried by birds and bugs, and these diseases can adversely impact humans. Garbage is the end result of our purchasing practices. The impacts of what we buy and what we discard as garbage definitely have an effect on our environment during manufacturing and disposal. (From Indigo at Anser Charter School in Boise)
Why does garbage smell?
Garbage smells because of the decomposition process. Microbes and bacteria live on garbage. They consume garbage and the byproduct they produce tends to be odiferous. The fresh trash smell that we smell inside of our garbage cans has oxygen present as the organic materials decompose. Once the garbage is compacted and in a landfill, the oxygen is used up and the process will become anaerobic where the byproduct is landfill gas. This is a very unique smell and is rather pungent and not very pleasant. (From Riley at Hillcrest Elementary School in Boise)
3: Where does garbage go at the dump?
The garbage goes to the dump. It's brought to the dump in a variety of vehicles, like trash trucks that pick up trash from the neighborhoods and businesses. The garbage is taken to landfills where it is crushed and buried. The landfill where the Boise trash is taken is 85 feet deep. (From Jackie at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)
Why do we separate trash and recyclables?
We separate trash from recycling to make it easy to identify what can be recycled and what cannot. It's like separating your laundry before you wash it. It makes the system more efficient if the recycling is put into one pile and the trash into another. It also helps you know how much of your trash is recyclable. This method of handling the trash is more efficient and more affordable for the trash and recycling services. (From Brooke at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)
Is there any way to get rid of garbage other than putting it in a landfill?
There are a lot of alternatives. One of the best ways is to see if your waste is recyclable. It is really important to recycle paper because if it goes to a landfill, it can take decades to degrade. Also, if waste is not put into a landfill, it can be incinerated, meaning it is mass burned. In certain communities, gasification or plasma technologies are used. Differing methods are developing all the time. (From Francis at Anser Charter School in Boise)
How does garbage decompose in the ground?
Decomposition is a natural process. Microbes and bacteria on the trash consume the organic materials. Garbage is also subjected to oxidation, where metals rust. This is where the metals combine with oxygen, causing them to break down. Other chemical reactions in a landfill also occur that help to break down the material. However, decomposition is the primary means that garbage breaks down. (From Gabe at Riverside Elementary School in Boise)
Why does the garbage truck crush the garbage?
Garbage collected curbside from your home is put into a compacting truck and is crushed. This maximizes the space on the truck, making more room so more trash can be picked up with fewer trips to the dump. The more garbage they can pick up, the more efficient it is, resulting in less impact to the environment through air pollution. (From Brody at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)
What does recycling do for our health and the health of our earth?
Recycling is a process of turning one product into something new and reusing it for a long, long time. It means not harvesting more trees and not mining more raw materials. It's about resource conservation. Recycling keeps materials out of the landfill, and because there are chemical processes that occur that can make products hazardous to our health, the less we have going to the landfills, the less impact we will have on our environment. (From Elise at Anser Charter School in Boise)
Why do we bury garbage?
We bury our garbage because we have to manage the material that we're throwing away. We don't want to leave it where the wind will blow it around or where animals can carry it off. We do need to make sure that we control where the material goes. It works best for our society to have one place where the trash goes. It's very cheap to put it in a landfill. Hopefully, overtime there will be new technology that will remove the necessity to put trash into a landfill. (From Isaac at Dalton Elementary School in Dalton Gardens)
How do garbage trucks get all of a city's garbage in one day?
Typically, we take a neighborhood and carve it like a pie with equal portions. Then, we make sure we have the right number of trucks and staff to cover a specific collection area. We don't pick up everything in one day. We divide it up and do about one fifth of a community on Monday, and another fifth on Tuesday, and so on. (From Kaylynn at Basin Elementary School in Idaho City)