Where Does Our Trash Go?

Here’s a confession: I don’t recycle.

I did during graduate school, when there was a recycling bin right outside my door, and a truck came and picked it up once a week. Now, though, I live in a rural area with no bins and no recycling routes. For some reason, sorting my trash and taking it a few miles out of my way seems like too much effort.

So maybe here is the real confession: I am lazy. A fair-weather recycler. I want convenience. Disposability. Non-commitment. Because all of that means I can live however I want, without having to work so hard.

I throw out the things I don’t want anymore, and those things become somebody else’s problem.



According to a SaveOnEnergy report, the average American produces 4.4 pounds of trash each day, and Americans produce 254 million tons of trash each year, waste that ends up in land fills. That’s enough trash to reach to the moon and back 25 times — a distance of 11,534,090 miles.

In Cape Girardeau, residents produce approximately 180 tons of trash per week from the city routes. Mike Tripp, Cape Girardeau Public Works superintendent, says that 41,290 tons of refuse were shipped out of the transfer station in 2017 from the city routes, combined with trash brought in to the facility by individuals. By comparison, Cape Girardeau residents recycle 4,638 tons of waste per year, which means that we’re recycling only about one- tenth as much as we’re throwing away, even though our recycling carts are 33 percent larger in size than our trash carts. Pretty trashy.

It is true, however, that we now have significantly fewer landfills in the U.S. than we did in the 1980s — think nearly one-seventh in number. Although this might sound like progress, our landfills today are much larger, and trash often has to travel much farther to get to them. While some states in the U.S. like Arkansas have enough room for trash for the next couple of centuries, Brian Palmer states in the article “Go West, Garbage Can!” that other states such as Rhode Island have less than a decade’s worth of storage space left.

Lemons Sanitary Landfill in Dexter, Missouri — the landfill that has been the final resting place for Cape Girardeau residents’ trash for 22 years — has approximately 20 more years worth of space left at its current site. Then they will move to a different area to bury our trash.



I can blame my laziness on the throw-away consumer society that I am a part of. That’s easy, and it is, after all, this very society that tells me easy is what I should want. But there is a deeper space within me, beckoning me beyond the cycle of consumption, waste and desire for more, calling out for something that lasts and is real, desiring to participate in the healing of our world, rather than its destruction.

Many cultures associate nature with womanhood, thinking of the earth as our cyclical mother who nurtures, produces and sustains life. Ecofeminism draws parallels between the treatment of the earth, the treatment of women and our perceived value within the larger culture.

There is truth there, I think. The amount of goods I consume, the waste my consumption produces and the way I treat the earth can become a way that I practice reverencing womanhood.

Convenience is not what I actually want. Being human takes time. I want to live a life in which my labor, time and effort are intensive testaments to my humanness.



I saved my trash for a week — I wanted to see how much waste my lifestyle produces. I kept it all in several trash cans, then consolidated. The result? Approximately three Walmart bags full of trash headed to the landfill. That wasn’t even all of it, because I cheated and didn’t keep the paper towels I throw away at work, or all of my napkins from meals. I heard about a woman once who fit everything she threw away in one year into a glass jar; three bags, multiplied over a year, is 156 bags, give or take. Over the next 75 years, it’s 11,700 Walmart bags full of trash.

Where does this waste go once it’s out of my life? In Cape Girardeau, trash that is not recycled is collected at the curb with trucks — the city has three automated trucks, as well as one rear loader. The trucks take the trash to the Cape Girardeau Public Works transfer station, where they are weighed before the trash is dumped on the concrete floor of one of three bays. Once on the floor of the bays, the trash is loaded and compacted in another trailer and taken to the landfill 54 miles away in Dexter, Missouri.

Tripp says he sees a lot of trash going to the landfill that could be recycled.


Photos by Ben Matthews



This past summer, I sat on a stool in Yellowstone National Park looking at a diner menu, trying to decide between a hamburger with pepper jack cheese and avocado, or a hamburger with American cheese and onion petals. The waitress sat our glasses of water down on the counter in front of us.

“Do you want straws?” she asked. We said yes — everyone except for my dad — and as she laid three down on the countertop in front of us, she told us that 500 million drinking straws are thrown away in America each day, and that each one takes 200 years to decompose in a landfill.

She smiled. “What can I get you to eat?” she asked.

Lips to glass, I scooted my still-wrapped straw back across the table to her.

It was a clever social experiment, one that has me thinking about how absurd drinking straws, plastic cutlery and paper plates really are. According to Andrew Bernier in his study “Living the Life of a Plastic Fork,” to create one pound of polypropylene — one of the main plastics used in disposable cutlery — it takes 5.12 gallons of water and 9.34 kWh of energy, which is about half of the energy used to power a television three hours a day for a month. When creating this pound of polypropylene, 0.029 pounds of solid waste are generated, along with 1.67 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.

And that’s just in production, not counting the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during distribution by tractor-trailer trucks, from factory, to ocean liner (if shipped internationally), to train, to tractor-trailer truck and, finally, to store.

All so I can use a plastic fork one time for 10 minutes to eat a piece of cake at a party. The repercussions: fossil-fuel emissions are released. People who work in the factories domestically and abroad have an increased risk of cancer, neurological damage and reproductive failure. Plastic breaks down in land fills, potentially leaching harmful contaminants into the soil and water.

But hey, at least I didn’t have to wash the dishes.



It is interesting what our trash says about our preferences, lifestyle, socioeconomic status and education level, all through what we are able to consume and willing to throw away. You can learn a lot about someone — their favorite types of food, the number of times a week they order takeout, the stores they shop at — by digging through their trash.



Most plastic cutlery can be recycled but isn’t, because forks and spoons are oddly shaped and it’s not cost effective. Many other types of trash, however, can be.

In Cape, recyclables are picked up at the curb and taken to the transfer station, where they are sorted into cardboard and single-stream material such as newspaper, aluminum cans and plastic jugs. The cardboard is baled at the transfer station and then picked up by Republic Services. They take it to St. Louis, where manufacturers buy the cardboard to reuse it.

Cape’s plastics are baled and bought by QRS Recycling in St. Louis, where they are sorted by grade of plastic, processed and then turned into flakes. These flakes are sold to manufacturers who make plastic products such as trash cans and pallets.

Glass can be taken by residents to the drive-through recycling facility at Cape’s transfer station. From there, it is picked up from the transfer station by Ripple Glass in Kansas City, Missouri, where it is broken down into glass fragments. Some are made into beer bottles; the majority goes to an Owens Corning facility in Kansas City, where it is turned into fiberglass for insulation.

According to Tripp, 80 percent of Cape Girardeau city households recycle.

Landfills, too, are finding ways to recycle the leachate and methane gases our trash emits. Many landfills collect this gas and use it to create electricity, powering thousands of homes and businesses in surrounding areas.

The not-for-profit Agbogblo, founded by university students, transforms e-waste from one of the world’s largest e-waste dumps in Ghana into furniture.

Countries around the world are leading the way in efforts to cut down on plastic usage: in England, Queen Elizabeth II banned plastic straws and bottles from the Royal Estates in February 2018. France dictated disposable plates and cups must be comprised of 50 percent biologically sourced materials by 2020. Bangladesh banned plastic bags in 2002, and many countries around the world followed.

The U.S. may not be on board, but we as individuals can be.



I use an iPhone 5s, from 2014. Last semester when I was teaching high school, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. One of my students said, “Ms. Pohlman, is that a 5s? It’s about time for a new phone, don’t you think?”

Besides the fact my storage is perpetually full and there are a few dents around the corners because I like the way the phone looks without a case, my phone works perfectly fine. Better than fine. And I like it — it has never occurred to me that I might need a new one. Call me naive, but it struck me as bizarre that I might, just because there have been four new iPhone series released since mine.

My student’s mindset is, however, how cell phone manufacturers and service providers who make their money from our desire for the latest things have trained us to think. The result? We’re producing e-waste from our old phones, laptops and printers at alarming rates.

E-waste is a term referring to the old technology we dispose of, and its exportation and importation is big business. Baher Kamal writes in “Where Do 50 Million Tonnes a Year of Toxic E-Waste Go?” that much of the world’s technological waste ends up in developing countries, specifically in Ghana, India, Pakistan and Brazil. Often it is smuggled into these countries by transnational criminal gangs who find loop-holes in importation laws by classifying e-waste as “secondhand goods.” With few laws to regulate the de-manufacturing of these goods in developing countries, the precious elements inside the electronics are often mined through open burning, releasing harmful emissions such as lead, mercury and cadmium into the environment and workers’ lungs.

Guiyu, a city in Southeastern China, has been a much-talked-about hub of e-waste demanufacturing since the early 2000s. According to TIME article “Guiyu, China,” the mining of the used electronics for lead, gold, copper and other valuable elements found in our electronic circuit boards, wiring and chips generated $75 million in revenue per year for the city in which many small, family-owned de-manufacturing businesses employ tens of thousands of people.

As of 2018, the Chinese government has blocked all imports of 24 types of foreign trash and is creating government-regulated, environmentally friendly facilities to de-manufacture e-waste.

Even with this ban, however, this farming village transformed into a technological de-manufacturing hub will be dealing with the effects of our improper e-waste disposal for years to come. A Shantou University study reported Guiyu has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world, as well as an elevated rate of miscarriages. The area’s children suffer from extremely high rates of lead poisoning. The city’s water is poisonous.



Confession: I still like drinking from plastic straws at restaurants. I reach for the plastic lids at fast food restaurants to put on my paper cup out of habit, even though the cup would still work without one. I use plastic forks at potlucks.

I take for granted that these things are normal, because I have been raised in a society that says they are.

They aren’t — normal, I mean. It’s just that my lifestyle — and our culture’s lifestyle — depends upon us not noticing or questioning it.

One way we know something has become normalized is when people no longer see or notice it; noticing the strange for long enough moves us to action.

Take a look at your trash.