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What Happens to Your Trash After It Goes to the Landfill?

Tossing trash is a mindless habit that comes with a heaping handful of consequences. Here's what happens to your garbage when it goes to the landfill.

what happens to garbage at landfill
Written by
Lindsey Anderson
Published
September 23, 2022
Disposing of household trash is a simple, mindless task—a flick of the wrist—that comes with a heaping handful of consequences.
The majority of our trash ends up in landfill—in 2018 alone, about 146.1 million tons of municipal solid waste was landfilled. And it never leaves that destination, instead idling in a limbo state, emitting harmful greenhouse gases and languishing out of sight. And once it’s out of sight, it’s out of mind right? 
The answer should be no. Read on for the truth about what happens to your trash when it goes to the landfill.

What Really Happens to All That Trash?

what happens to trash at landfill
To minimize odor and potential littering, landfill waste is crushed, compressed, and buried upon arrival. Once compacted, this tightly packed material leaves little room for oxygen, a necessary component of the decomposition process. Without the presence of oxygen, decomposition must take place anaerobically—a process in which bacteria slowly break down the waste material.
Methane gas is a byproduct of anaerobic decomposition and has quickly become the most harmful greenhouse gas. According to the EPA, landfills are largely to blame for these emissions. In 2020, landfill methane emissions were equivalent to the greenhouse gas emissions of almost 20.3 million passenger vehicles. 
An increasingly high rate of methane emissions is due to the inability of waste to decompose in a landfill. An increasing release of methane gas persists as the waste material fails to decompose, an issue further exacerbated by our use of plastic garbage bags.

The Truth About Plastic Garbage Bags in the Landfill

The use of plastic bags to dispose of household waste is a pretty ironic (read: immensely harmful) practice. Plastic is, in fact, the one material that never breaks down. Even after 1,000 years, a plastic bag will leave behind tiny particles of what it once was, never fully disappearing.
Why do we bother disposing of material in a non-degradable container? Similar to landfill systems, plastic bags were not created to decompose waste. As with the burial and compression method, plastic bags lack the oxygen and moisture needed to decompose their contents. Simply stated, food scraps, paper, packaging, and other potentially biodegradable materials remain in the bag, not at all decomposed.
The remaining material can contaminate the surrounding area in the form of leachate, a liquid formed when rainwater filters through landfill waste. So, if methane gas emissions weren't enough, we now have biodegradable material left rotting in plastic bags, leaching contaminants into the soil around it.

How Can We Combat This Issue?

what happens to trash at landfill
Composting organic material is the best and most sustainable alternative to throwing out food items, and—until our waste system is entirely overhauled—one of the best (and only) proven proactive steps to mitigate waste.
Composting involves the integration of food scraps, yard clippings, and other organic materials into a communal bin where, given the right environment, your waste will begin to decompose and turn into soil. You can compost both indoors and outside, or look for community collections in your area—there's even an app for that. (Many individuals, families, or farmers would love to take your food scraps off your hands.)
But what about non-food items? Upcycling trash is another way to mitigate waste—aka reusing something in a way that increases the original object’s value. You can upcycle clothing that's too worn-out to donate, turning items like t-shirts into plant hangers or cleaning rags. Or upcycle would-be trash into furniture, like an old suitcase into a table. You can even upcycle trash into DIY home decor.
Every small step you take to reduce the amount of trash you're producing greatly impacts the amount of waste being sent to landfill every day. Whether it's composting, upcycling, or getting creative in other ways, the planet will thank you.