The Secret Life of Trash

We recycle more waste than any other big city in America. A truck picks it up at the curb—and then what? Here’s a look inside rubbish reincarnation

Photograph by Mathieu Young



Bonk! You’ve tossed your soda can into a recycling bin and asked yourself: What landfill will that end up in? This futile feeling is what motivated us to follow the contents of a blue bin. The cardboard, plastic, glass, and aluminum went to the Los Angeles Express Materials Recovery Facility, operated in South L.A. by Waste Management Recycle America. Workers—some wearing cut-resistant gloves—look for bodies (occasionally the homeless die in rubbish bins, where they seek food and refuge), weapons, and other hazards as the trash is placed on conveyor belts and sorted. Turns out the soda can doesn’t end up in a dump after all: It goes to processing plants that turn it into raw material for, most likely, a new can—a dull but worthy rebirth.


recyclerevolution_tRECYCLING REVOLUTION

The century-long history of reclaiming Los Angeles refuse is littered with failures that persistence has converted into extraordinary success




The Los Angeles Express Materials Recovery Facility reclaims an average of 3,152 tons of commodities every month. The breakdown, in tons: 

piechartGlass: 600
Aluminum: 17
Plastics: 300
Scrap Iron: 85
Paper: 1,350
Cardboard: 800 



Recyclable waste is our fastest-growing export to China. It accounts for more than 10 percent of all U.S.-Sino exports, and it holds the largest share in terms of value. Some experts in foreign trade estimate that the worth of garbage crossing the Pacific Ocean will increase to $12 billion in the near future. They point out that sending trash overseas eliminates waste processing jobs in the United States.

bargraphU.S. exports of waste and scrap to China, in U.S. dollars:
2000: 744 million
2004: 2.508 billion
2008: 7.562 billion 

Source: U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2009 report to Congress



Some articles recycled at L.A. Express, including glass bottles and food containers made of iron, remain in the Los Angeles area, where they are processed back into stock for countless products. Other recovered commodities travel across the country or overseas, returning as construction supplies made from magazines, say, or as backpacks that once were plastic soda bottles. 

Los Angeles 
At recycling plants the contents of blue bins are sorted into paper, cardboard, iron, aluminum, glass, and plastic. The iron and glass stay right at home for processing. 

Forget FedEx 
This is how all those compacted recyclables make their way to China. 

The superpower converts our paper, cardboard, and plastic into a host of cheap stuff:

duckDrink Up
This ducky was once a soda bottle. 


eggsOval Office
A good use for former newspapers? Egg cartons.  


carCar Fancy
Many auto parts are made from processed plastic bleach containers.  


Here your Bud can may be milled into another Bud can.



Photographs & Graphics (in order): Mathieu Young (1), Haisam Hussein (2-4), Shutterstock (5-7)