My Garbage According to the experts, the average family can recycle about 20 pounds of trash each week. But even if you are obsessive about separating the reusable trash, you have to wonder — where does the stuff end up?
NPR logo My Garbage

My Garbage

The average family produces 20 pounds of potentially recyclable trash each week, according to garbage experts. You have to wonder, though, where does the reusable stuff end up?

Eager to find out, I hitched a ride with Mr. Brown, a recycling truck driver for Allied Waste in Los Angeles. Brown has been on the job for 41 years and he says that, sadly, about one-third of the stuff my neighbors put in their blue recycle bins actually shouldn't be there.

"A lot of times, they throw away garden hoses, plastic painters' tarps, stuff like that," he says, "and it can't be recycled."

Mr. Brown and I poked around in some of the bins near my house, pulling out the obvious misfits before dumping the bins in his truck.

Mr. Brown reminded me that he doesn't normally look through the bins, and if you don't take the time to put your recycling in the proper receptacle, it's lost forever.

The actual sorting, however, takes place at Sun Valley Paperstock, my local recycling plant. They receive about 150 tons of stuff a day — about 20 percent of the recycled waste for the city of Los Angeles. After sorting it, they sell it to companies who make new stuff out of old.

"About half of what we process is shipped to local recycling firms," says general manager Darryl Reno. The rest gets shipped overseas or to other parts of the country. Reno also confirmed Brown's figure — about one-third of the junk that arrives can't be recycled.

As he was showing me around, I spotted a ratty, old, stuffed Scooby! Alas, Scooby wasn't recyclable. He was to be sent to the landfill, so I decided to follow him.

I headed to the Sunshine Canyon landfill, just north of my home. It's 400 acres of old diapers, beat-up couches, shower curtains and miscellaneous icky, gooey, stinky stuff. Every day, the workers here process 800 tons of trash.

Tim Suss of Allied Waste explained that the sea of waste in front of me represented a single day of fresh garbage. As I added my junk to piles of fish wrappers and irritating packing peanuts, I found one thing comforting — dedicated people like Mr. Brown, and Darryl Reno and Tim looking after the stuff we so casually toss away. I asked Tim if he, and the others who work here, consider themselves environmentalists.

"Yes, I do." he replied without hesitation. "We have to care for our habitat, be aware of how we're impacting our surroundings, and make as little an impact as possible."

Al Gore may have gotten a peace prize, but I think these guys are the true heroes of environmentalism.

-Day to Day contributor and actress Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of a book about modern downsizing, Fired!, and a columnist for the publication, The Nation.