How many of us pay attention to the items we throw away throughout the day? Trash that goes in the garbage, not the recycling bin. For example, how many produce nets or twist ties get discarded after supermarket runs? How much waste (freezer bags and tubs, wrappers, and cartons) ends up in the garbage after a prepared meal? What about the plastic utensils, straws, and greasy bags left over from a visit to 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. Almost five pounds might not seem like much, but over the course of a year, it comes to 1,715.5 pounds. Could you imagine carrying that around with you?

I try to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle by reducing my trash on a daily basis. The amount of trash in the world is steadily outgrowing the number of people and, more rapidly, the marine life. It’s not just marine life that suffers, though — humans are affected, too. To find out where the little trash I create actually goes, I set up a visit to the Miramar Landfill to learn more.

discarded trash in a waste basket
Do you pay attention to what you toss in the trash? It may help you change your purchasing habits.

The Life Cycle of Trash

Landfills are essentially trash graveyards where no one comes to pay their respects. When we discard something we consider trash, it’s common to say that we “throw it away,” but where is “away”? Thankfully, more people today are concerned about where the things they discard go and what happens to them when they get 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. So, we must each be responsible for sorting our own trash. Once it’s dumped, the trash just sits there and breaks down extremely slowly over time. Every piece of trash deposits chemicals and minerals into the dirt below.

If someone discards batteries or nail polish in their trash — rather than depositing it at a hazardous materials site — those toxic 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.

It’s not just the earth and water that get contaminated; trash affects air quality, too. Trash gives off chemical gases when it breaks down, most notably methane. Yes, that’s the same gas as cow farts and the same gas that contributes to the degradation of Earth’s ozone layer. If you need a reminder, the ozone layer is the natural gas layer in Earth’s atmosphere that protects living things from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.

In the future, especially in a zero-waste city, living next to the dump won’t smell and won’t necessarily lower your home’s value. Because it won’t really be a dump; it will be more of a sorting house for all recyclable and compostable materials — which don’t emit negative odors when managed correctly.

Becoming a Better-Informed Citizen

That vision is going to take years to realize, but I think it’s worth pursuing. My city, San Diego, has a zero-waste plan to divert all solid waste from the landfill by 2040. According to Brencick, we are on track to meet that goal!

My local landfill has a recycling center, a greenery (where compost is made from yard trimmings and food scraps), a hazardous waste facility, and, of course, a dump. You need to pay a fee to dispose of some items, like appliances, tires, and recyclables that aren’t accepted in the city’s curbside program. 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 disposal 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 happy to educate 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!).

Do you know what disposal services your city or county offers? You can give your local landfill a call if you have questions. Also, most cities provide information on their official website about recycling, composting, and hazardous waste disposal programs. 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

Editor’s note: Originally published on March 23, 2017, this article was updated in August 2018.

By 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.