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Curious Cbus: What Happens To My Trash?

This story is part of the Curious Cbus project. You ask the questions, you vote on one of the questions, and we answer. To ask your question, visit wosu.org/curious. The first question came from Jon Hsu:

What happens to our waste (trash, recycling, yard waste) once it's collected? Where does it actually go?

A city garbage truck prowls through a Clintonville alley.  The driver stops amid blue and green trash containers and picks up the green ones using the truck’s mechanical arm.  He empties those 90-gallon containers into his truck. 

A few blocks away, a two-man crew lifts an outdated, giant-screen TV from the curb and throws it into the back of their truck where it’s crushed.

The Landfill

The trash in the two trucks is headed to the SWACOlandfill near Grove City.  About 500 trucks carry trash collected from all over Franklin County through the landfill’s gates 5 days a week. They head to the top of an ever-rising mountain of refuse and each day leave 4,200 tons of trash behind.

ShiloPletcher is the landfill’s supervisor.

Credit Thomas Bradley / 89.7 NPR News
89.7 NPR News
Hauling waste up to the SWACO landfill's "working face"

“Roughly 500 trucks a day … 4,000 tons a day," Pletcher says. "We’re sitting on 180 acres."

That’s a million tons of trash buried at the landfill every year. Less than half of the trash that’s buried here comes from residential customers; the majority comes from commercial users. 

SWACO says the landfill has more than two decades of capacity left.  But it would last longer, they say, if more people recycled. 

Credit Thomas Bradley / 89.7 NPR News
89.7 NPR News

“Anywhere from 60- to 70 percent of the trash that comes into the landfill could be repurposed, reused, recycled," says SWACO executive director Ty Marsh.

“Not only would that be better for extending the life of the landfill and for environmental purposes but there’s also economic value in doing that,” Marsh says.

The Recycling Center

That’s where those blue containers come in. They hold recyclable trash that’s picked up by the Rumpke Co., every other week.  Crews take the refuse to the company’s sorting facility near the state fairgrounds. 

Rumpke spokeswoman Taylor Greely guides me through the building.

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89.7 NPR News

“The area we’re in right now is the sorting and separating phase of this process,” Greely says.

In the early days of recycling, residents had to separate items themselves before disposal. Now it’s done by Rumpke at their Fields Ave. facility. 

“We’re using stuff like infrared light, 2500 feet of interconnected conveyor belt, large industrial magnets," Greely says. "And then once we have all those items back into their individual categories then we’ll bale them into bales and we’ll ship them off to regional manufacturers where they’ll be turned back into new products."

As much as 80,000 pounds of material is sorted per hour. All sorts of cans, plastic bottles, glass containers, cardboard cartons and paper fly by on high speed conveyors and eventually end up at the baler. What can’t be recycled – plastic bags and videotape, for instance – is pulled out and sent to the landfill. 

The troubling truth, however: Columbus residents recycle on a very small portion of their trash. Just 42,000 tons were recycled in 2015; a million tons were buried.  

And with the facility's automatic sorting, Greely says there's really no reason for people not to recycle.

"It’s very simple to recycle," Greely says. "We have curbside recycling and the materials are being sorted and separated and put back to use right close to home."

And that’s what happens to your trash. 

Got your own question about Central Ohio? Ask us below for Curious Cbus.