Where to throw away garbage?

Garbage Man / January 18, 2023

  • I can describe types of waste and what happens to them in my community.
  • I can discuss pros and cons of different ways of dealing with garbage, such as landfilling, recycling, and composting.
  • I can collect data and present it in percentages (and if appropriate, in graphs and tables).


Garbage is complex. Even when citizens make an effort to sort their waste into glass, paper, recyclable plastic, and food, many items are hard to classify or contain a mixture of materials. Some items will always escape the collection system and end up where they can be harmful, such as parks, roadsides, or the ocean.

A majority of waste in the United States is sent to landfills to be buried, and for items that do not break down over time, stored. The United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal also send about 50 percent or more of their trash to landfills. In Northern Europe, 30 to 50 percent of rubbish is burned in modern incinerators that trap pollutants and use the energy for heat and electricity. Some U.S. waste is also burned: in 2011, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 25 states had facilities to burn waste for energy. (Use the Columbia University Waste map to see your state. See link in References and Further Reading.) Also according to the EPA, in the United States in 2011, about 35 percent of the 250 million tons of garbage generated in a single year was recycled and composted. This activity focuses on garbage that is destined for landfills, recycling, or composting.

Note: When discussing this topic with students, best practices in environmental education advise sharing information only, not imposing values. For this topic, pointing out the value of reusing, recycling, or composting could be balanced with discussions or assignments about the costs of transporting and processing reused, recycled, or composted materials, or about the difficulties of recycling in a city that does not have a widespread recycling program.

The photographs in this exercise show typical American garbage; however, landfills around the world generally look the same.

Begin the Activity


  • Photos printed large enough to identify individual waste items
  • Information on school or community recycling, reusing, and composting policies
  • Rulers, pencils, graph paper

Review the categories of items that the school or the community recycles, reuses, or composts. In pairs or small groups, give students handouts of the photos that are large enough to identify and count individual items. Ask students to categorize and count items that they think might be recycled, reused, or composted. Have them describe why they think the item could be removed from potential landfilling and why. For mixed-material items, ask what processing or disassembling might be needed.

Based on counts from the photographs generated in the pairs or small groups, have students estimate or calculate the percentage of garbage from the collections in the photographs that might be recycled, reused, or composted. If time permits, data from the entire class could be combined for an estimate or calculation from all photographs.

Optional: Depending on the data-organizing and data-presenting methods that your class has been learning, students might make T-charts, bar graphs, or tables of their waste counts. If they have learned percentages and pie charts, they might categorize the waste items they see in the photographs into the same categories as those designated in figure 3 on the EPA Municipal Solid Waste website. Students can convert category counts into percentage of total garbage, and put the results into a pie chart for comparison with the EPA chart. In any case, remind students to label the entire graph and, if appropriate, divide and mark the X and Y axes and label divisions, categories, and axes. For numerical divisions, start axes at zero. For all tables or charts, provide a title and legend if needed.

Encourage students to be objective. They should categorize and count items without judging what should have been done with them. Note that they must make decisions about what categories to make and how to define the categories (e.g., what counts as plastic, paper, etc.). Remind them that this is what scientists do when they plan experiments and collect data. Tell them to write down their methods: how they defined different types of waste—for example, by identifying particular colors, shapes, or textures; how they resolved unclear items; whether they counted the entire collection in the photograph or counted a representative sample area; and so on. Have them convert category counts into percent of the total waste counted to make comparisons easier.

Ask students to share their results, describing the decisions they made and why they made them; what items were particularly difficult and how they decided to categorize challenging items; and their interpretations about the amount of garbage that might be reused, recycled, or composted. Ask which results were expected and why, and which results were surprising and why.

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