Where Does My Trash Go?


How many times have you personally thought about the items you’ve thrown away throughout the day? How many produce nets or twist ties during your supermarket runs? How many plastic coverings and bags in a frozen meal? How many tossed paper bags and cartons from visiting a fast food joint? According to Paul Brencick, senior public information officer of the Miramar Landfill in San Diego, the average resident creates 4.7 pounds of trash per day.

I know almost five pounds might not seem like much, but if you multiply that for a whole year, it comes out to 1,715.5 pounds. Could you imagine carrying that around with you? I try to live a zero-waste lifestyle to encourage myself and others to reduce their trash on a daily basis. The amount of trash in the world is steadily outgrowing the number of people and, more rapidly, the sea life. I’m sure I’m not the only girl in the world who wished she could be a mermaid growing up. Even though I’m stuck with my two legs, I still strive to help all marine life in any way I can.

It’s not just the sea life that suffers, though — humans are affected, too. I wanted to keep researching and find out where the little trash I do create actually goes, so I set up a visit to the Miramar Landfill to learn more.

The Life Cycle of Trash

Landfills are essentially trash graveyards where no one comes to pay their respects. The term we use to determine if we’re done with something is to throw it “away,” but where is that? Not many people are conscious of where “away” actually is and what happens to everything once it ends up there.

On my tour, I learned that nothing gets sorted at the dump. If I put something recyclable in the trash can, it will end up in the landfill. There are no employees who sort anything in the trash, so it is imperative to be responsible for our own trash. Once the trash does end up at the dump, it just sits there and breaks down extremely slowly over time. Every piece of trash deposits chemicals and minerals into the dirt below. If someone throws away batteries or nail polish into their trash rather than depositing it at the hazardous materials site, all those chemicals seep into groundwater below. All that nastiness inevitably ends up in our drinking water or in our produce. The amounts are small, but those amounts have been rising over the years, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they stop rising.

Along with all the fun stuff happening below, there is everything happening above. Trash gives off chemical gases when it breaks down, most notably methane. Yes, the same gas as cow farts and the same gas that breaks down our ozone layer. Not only is it smart to sort your trash at home and keep as much out of the landfill as possible, it’s also for the greater good of society and its aroma.

In the future, especially in a zero-waste city, living next to the dump won’t smell and won’t be a negative aspect to home ownership. Instead, it will be more of a sorting house for all recyclables and compostable materials — which do not give off any negative odor when done right.

Becoming a More-Informed Citizen

That vision is going to take years to realize, but it’s worth pursuing. My city, San Diego, has a plan to become completely zero-waste by 2050. According to Brencick, we are on track to meet that goal! My personal landfill has a recycle center, a greenery, a place to deposit hazardous materials and, of course, a dump. Some services, like the greenery, have a small dumping fee, but most are free. The greenery has a pick-up program as well, where you can come by and pick up compost or mulch at no cost. The recycling center is also complimentary. You can drop everything off and the employees will sort it for you. I was concerned about the wildlife at the dump because piles of trash tend to attract birds and small animals, but I learned they have deterrents, sometimes with sound, to make sure no wildlife is harmed.

Most of these services are offered nationwide and can be accessed with some research. I went to my city’s official website and called every phone number that was even remotely related to trash pickup. Once I figured out which landfill handled my trash, I called them to ask for a tour and they were so open to educating me about a day in the life at the landfill. “We really encourage everyone to learn more about recycling and reusing and repurposing,” Brencick says. Most dumps are open to the public, so even if you can’t schedule an official tour, I highly recommend visiting yours just to have a quick look at the final resting place for your five pounds of daily trash (but hopefully it’s less!).

If I have inspired you in any way at all, call your local landfill and ask what they do and do not accept. Most cities also have a lot of information on their local government website as to what programs they offer — recycling, composting, plastic bag recycling, etc. The more you know about where your trash really goes, the more likely you’ll be to create less of it.

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

Read More:
Trash vs. Garbage: Is There a Difference?
Sweden’s Strange Problem: Not Enough Trash
Who Actually Constructs a Landfill? You Might Be Surprised


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Audrey Holmes

Based in San Diego, Audrey Holmes is on a personal journey toward zero waste. She admits to watching otter videos on YouTube way too much and having an unhealthy obsession with matcha. Speaking of green, read all about her zero-waste journey on her blog, Green Blue Marble.

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