Where does your trash go after you throw it away?

In general when you throw away trash it can either be processed into some new product or it can be destroyed. Ofcourse where your trash goes after you throw it away varies on what kind of trash it is and if there still is something valuable to be made from your trash.

In this article you will find all the different kinds of item categories and what happens to these categories in general and we will leave you with a note on what is better than recycling in the first place.

So read on to discover what really happens to the different kinds of trash you throw away.

What happens to food scraps when you throw it away?

Roughly speaking food scraps either end up in the ground or on a compost pile. The latter being the more favorable option. The reason why you food scraps to end up on a compost pile is because bugs and bacteria will eat the compost and turn it into carbon dioxide instead of toxic methane gas. This sounds counter intuitive because you don’t want carbon dioxide, however when food scraps are properly processed they can be used as fertilizer and therefore can be used to create more trees and plants.

In 2020 in the US, only 5% of all the food scraps went to compost piles and 95% ended up in the ground producing methane. The Vermont’s Act no 148. promised to have all the food scraps go to compost heap in 2020. However in a report of vermont.gov released in 2019 the increase in the amount of compost heaps did grow but only by 9% in 2017. The EPA(Environment Protection Agency) mentioned that only 4.1% of all the food waste is being composted in 2018. So basically when you are in the US your food waste is not being processed properly in general. Find out how other countries are doing here.

You can take matter into your own hands by getting your own compost heap. Use this compost as your fertilizer for your plants.

What happens to disposed clothes?

Many people think that all their clothes that they dispose of in the correct way end up being recycled. The truth is that only a small fraction of clothes is being recycled or reused. For example in the US only 15% is recycled according to the EPA. Also the amount of textile waste almost doubled there:

Textile created in tons1,7502,0502,5405,8409,50011,50013,22016,06016,89017,030
Recycled Textile50601606601,3201,8302,0502,4602,5702,510
Combustion with Energy Recovery10508801,8802,1102,2703,0603,1703,220
1960-2018 Data on Textiles in MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons) Source: epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling-textiles

In other countries this isn’t much different. All around 15 to 20%. You can check out this table on Labfresh.eu for a more in depth analysis in Europe countries.

Why is this? According to an article of the BBC it is beacuse the Fashion industry uses materials that aren’t well good for recycling. They are made from a blend of yarns filaments, plastics and metals. A pair of pants for example is made of cotton yarn a zipper, threads and different dyes. This makes it complex to seperate and reuse these materials. The complexer it is the more energy and resources are required to recycle.

What happens to glass when you throw it away?

In general glass tends to be either melted down and recycled or thrown into a garbage dump. When you throw away glass it depends on if the glass is broken or not on how it is handled. It also depends on the type of glass, wine and drinking glasses, light bulbs and container glass of for example beers have different melting points than normal glass of for example pot lids. So don’t throw these shards in the recycling bin, wrap them and place in the garbage can. Wrap them because you can hurt the workers handling the glass.

Recyclable glass:

Glass jars and bottles, medicine bottles, parfume bottles, creme jars, jars with herbs or baby food. Cleaning the jars and bottles is allowed. Small bottles and jars are also recylable: for example medicine bottles, perfume bottles, cream jars and jars containing herbs or baby food. Scraping is welcome, rinsing or washing up is not necessary. Washing dishes at home takes more energy than in the glass factory. Put the cap or lid back on the bottle or jar. Metal lids and caps are allowed in the glass container, the metal is later fished out of the glass. You can throw plastic lids in the plastic bin on the spot.

Non-recyclable glass:

Glass other than packaging glass such as tea glasses, wine glasses, other drinking glasses, (oven) dishes, vases and decorative bottles is not suitable for the glass container, but belongs in the garbage can with residual waste. Tea glasses and oven dishes are made of heat-resistant glass. This ‘toughened’ glass has a different melting point than packaging glass and disrupts recycling. Crystal also does not belong in the glass container because it has a different composition. The difference between glass types is not easy to see. That is why these types of glass are not allowed in the glass container.

What happens to metals when thrown away?

In short all scrap metal end up in a scrap metal yard. The metals are crushed and melted in a furnace and turned into ingots. The longer explaination is that different metals are recycled differently.

For example aluminium has a melting point of 660oC.

The step by step process for aluminum is:

  1. Shredding the aluminium to remove coloured coating.
  2. They are melted in a furnace
  3. The molten metal is poured into ingot casts to set. Each ingot could make atleast 1.5 million aluminium cans!

how copper is recycled step by step:

  1. They crush and grind the copper to loosen all attached materials to the copper.
  2. A conveying device deliver the mixture of copper an plastic to a vibrating device while removing dust particles.
  3. The vibrating device seperates the copper from plastic.
  4. They collect the copper and plastic seperatly.

Not all scrap metal can be recycled, it has to be at least 50% metal. So even if it has other materials surrounding it, it’s still worth to recycle.

What happens to plastic when you throw it away?

Overall there are three important journeys for plastic. When you throw plastic away in a trash can most of it ends up in a landfill where they mix with rain water releasing the toxic material called leachate which can move into ground water and soil. Poisioning for example water reservoirs. It can take a single water bottle 1000 years to decompose.

The second journey of a water bottle could be that it ends up in stream of water that mostly end up in the ocean and when they do they float to a place in the ocean called a garbage patch of which there are 6. Animals get stuck in the plastic soup or worse they eat it and they pass it up the food chain and eventually into the fish that you eat. Plastic doesn’t degrade but it does break down into micro plastics which will circulate the oceans for a long time.

The third journey for plastic is to a recycling center where the plastic are squeezed flat and turned into a block that are being shredded into tiny pieces that can be remolded into anything.

Watch this video for more:

What happens to cartboard and paper when you throw it away?

Paper and cardboard do not harm the environment when thrown away because they are biodegradable. If seperated correctly they end up back to a paper factory or they will be burnt in order to create energy. If not seperated correctly the paper and cardboard will end up in a landfill.

The full process of recycling cartboard and paper:

  1. First they seperate the cartboard and paper
  2. They shred the paper and cardboard.
  3. The cardboard and paper is put into a pulp machine to break down the cardboard into fibers.
  4. The mixture is pressed through a screen to remove contaminants
  5. The paper is cleaned by being spun on a cyclinder.
  6. The pulp is sent through a machine that puts it onto a conveyor belt where the water will be removed so that the fibers can bond together.
  7. Heated rollers dry the mixture and the mixture will be put onto large rolls which can be used to create new products.

What happens to cars when it gets old?

Old cars go to the junk jard. Here they will be scrapped for useful parts and the carcasses of the cars will be crushed and recycled. The carcasses are mostly various kinds of metal (75%), plastic and fluids (25%). Metals like copper, lead, aluminum and even platinum and palladium.

Cars have to go to a de-pollution process where workers remove hazardous materials from the car. Materials like car batteries, tyres, catalytic converters and air bags.

After these materials are removed the cars go to expert car scrappers to seperate metals, plastics and fibres. After this is finished the cars can be crushed and melted down and they will undergo the same treatment as scrap metal.. because it is scrap metal by then!

What happens to electronics when you get rid of it?

Unfortunately most electronics still end up in landfills or incinerated wasting metals and releasing toxic chemicals. In the US when you take electronics to a recycler about 80% of that material will be shipped to countries like China or India. The process of recycling electronics is mostly very toxic and the workers that have to do the recycling often have no protection. For example they are cooking printed circuit boards and breathe in all the retardants and the leads. This doesn’t happen in all countries but

Reusing is always the best option for stuff ofcourse but this is not always possible. Electronics can be recycled properly by a reputable recycler however. They seperate metals from plastics and treat them appropriately. In order to find these recyclers however you are going to have to do a good due dilligence process.

Recyling isn’t zero waste!

So to summarize. Recycling isn’t the holy grail solution that will fix everything. This is because recycling is costly and not always possible for each and every item. Reusing stuff is always the better option and also to reduce the amount of stuff that you use so recycling is not needed in the first place!


Greennova is created out of a passion for sustainability. The vision is to create a sustainable world for humans and our role is to provide a platform where people can learn about how to become part of the solution.

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