The world is swimming in trash. Food waste, plastics, electronics—the modern world produces millions of tons of stuff it doesn’t want every year, most of which ends up in landfills. We may stop thinking about our trash once it gets taken out to the curb, but that doesn’t mean it goes away. Here are 11 fascinating things you might not know about waste. (They don't all stink, we promise.)
1. WE THROW AWAY A LOT OF IT.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the United States throws away the equivalent of 4.4 pounds of trash per person every day. We recycle and compost about 1.5 pounds per person. However, a recent study found those numbers might be low—it found the U.S. dumped 289 million tons of city waste in 2012, twice the EPA’s estimate for that year.
2. SOMETIMES, YOU CAN GET IT BACK.
Some cities allow you to report a lost item after you’ve accidentally thrown it away. In Albuquerque, the item has to be reported within four hours of pickup. In New York City, at least, the item “must be of significant value.” So wedding bands, yes, lost homework, no.
3. DOGS LOVE TO PEE ON IT.
A dog digging through trash in Istanbul. Image Credit: iStock
In urban areas, sometimes the most attractive place for a pup to pee is straight onto a garbage bag. As a dog cognition expert told The New York Times in 2014, a bag full of trash on the sidewalk is “a new feature on the dog’s landscape and therefore inherently interesting. It smells like food. And because it sits above ground level, it acts as a sort of broadcast tower for a dog’s scent marking.”
4. TRASH PRIVACY MIGHT BE A CIVIL RIGHT.
In Seattle, recycling regulations are getting serious. In 2015, the city banned food waste and recyclables in municipal trashes, in an effort to get people to compost. However, homeowners sued the city this past summer arguing that letting trash collectors dig through people’s waste to enforce the regulation is a violation of residents’ constitutional right to privacy.
5. RECYCLING ISN’T UNIFORMLY ADMIRED.
Recycling isn’t often profitable. “In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead,” writer John Tierney explained in The New York Times recently. However, politicians and researchers argue that an emphasis on recycling helps encourage people to use less in the first place.
6. IT CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR MENTAL HEALTH.
One study found that looking at a natural landscape littered with trash didn’t give people the relaxing, restorative feelings that looking at nature normally provokes. Looking at images of a clean beach made people feel happy, but people reported being angry and sad when looking at the same beach with some trash strewn around.
7. IT CAN LATER BE TURNED INTO A PARK.
Cities are increasingly rehabilitating their old landfills to become public parkland. Chicago’s Mount Bridgeport was once a quarry used to dump construction waste. Austin, Texas has Mabel Davis Park, a 50-acre former brownfield and dump. However, because of potential contamination, the rehabilitation process can take decades. Staten Island’s dump, once the largest landfill in the world, will become a 2200 acre park by 2036.
8. THERE’S A WHOLE LOT OF IT IN THE OCEAN.
Small pieces of plastic trash and debris accumulate in certain parts of the ocean because of currents and wind. However, the Great Pacific garbage patch is not a trash island, as you might imagine it. “A comparison I like to use is that the debris is more like flecks of pepper floating throughout a bowl of soup, rather than a skim of fat that accumulates (or sits) on the surface,” as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist puts it. Think of it as a big, salty trash smoothie.
9. IT TRAVELS FARTHER THAN YOU MIGHT IMAGINE.
Cities don’t always bury their garbage nearby. When MIT researchers attached trackers to 3000 pieces of Seattle trash in 2009, they found the waste ended up all over the country. In the late ‘80s, New York City shut down its local landfills and filled a barge with 3000 tons of trash, sending it down to North Carolina. The state, as well as several other potential destinations, decided not to take it. After months of seeking a port, the barge dumped its contents in Brooklyn, where it was incinerated. Now, the city’s trash is shipped out of state to New Jersey, Ohio, and other areas. At one dump in Kentucky, 80 to 90 percent of waste came from other states, until the program was discontinued this year. (The residents found thousands of tons of incoming waste a day to be a little smelly.)
10. SWEDEN USES IT ALL UP.
The European country sends less than 1 percent of its household waste to landfills, thanks to waste-to-energy plants that incinerate trash to produce electricity. The program is so successful that Sweden has begun importing other countries’ trash to provide its residents with heating. Norway, Germany, and several other countries also import waste to generate energy.
11. IT COSTS MORE DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU LIVE.
Some cities charge businesses and residents for trash pickup. Los Angeles, the largest city to do so, charges more than $36 a month for single-family or two-unit buildings. San Francisco charges a little more than $5 per unit per month. In Seattle, the price depends on the size of your garbage bin. Chicago is the most recent large metro in the country to debate such a fee.