Date: Monday, April 8, 2024
AUTHOR: Team Viably

How Much Recyclable Waste Goes Into Landfills And What Can Be Done About It?

How much waste goes into landfills? Overhead shot of tractor compacting waste at a landfill.

The volume of recyclable waste diverted to landfills in North America is staggering. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States saw approximately 146.1 million tons of waste landfilled in 2018, a significant portion of which was comprised of materials that could have been recycled, including paper, plastics, metals, and glass. Specifically, of the total municipal solid waste generated, only 32.1% was recycled or composted, leaving a vast amount of recyclable materials occupying landfill space. Canada faces a similar plight, with Statistics Canada reporting that out of the 25 million tons of waste collected in 2016, only about 27% was diverted for recycling or composting.

These numbers underscore the critical urgency for enhanced recycling efforts and infrastructure improvements across the continent to substantially reduce the volume of recyclable waste disposed of in landfills. They not only represent a lost opportunity for recovery and reuse but also have broader environmental repercussions, including the acceleration of natural resource depletion and the intensification of greenhouse gas emissions associated with organic waste decomposition.

What Types of Waste Are Being Landfilled?

A closer look at the types of waste ending up in North American landfills reveals a pattern dominated by Construction and Demolition (C&D) debris, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), bulky waste, and organics and food waste. C&D waste generally comprises materials like wood, concrete, and metal, remnants of construction, renovation, and demolition processes. MSW, commonly known as trash or garbage, includes everyday items discarded by the public. Bulky waste refers to items too large for regular trash collection, such as appliances, furniture, mattresses, and large household goods. Organic waste, encompassing food scraps, yard trimmings, and other biodegradable materials, constitutes a significant fraction of the waste stream.

Municipal solid waste (MSW) disposed at a landfill.
Not reclaiming waste translates to lost economic benefits and compounds the environmental cost of resource extraction.

This disposal trend presents specific challenges to both commercial waste haulers and recyclers. For haulers, the transportation of heavy and voluminous waste to landfills incurs substantial fuel, maintenance, and operational costs, compounded by ever-rising landfill tip fees. This financial burden ultimately impacts service pricing and operational efficiency. For recyclers, the opportunity loss is equally significant. By redirecting potential recyclable materials like wood, concrete, brick, metals, and certain types of paper to landfills, the recycling industry misses out on valuable revenue streams. The failure to reclaim these materials not only translates to lost economic benefits but also compounds the environmental cost of resource extraction and production processes required to replace what could have been recycled.

Why Does Recyclable Waste End Up In Landfills?

Several factors contribute to why recyclable waste does not get recycled. Among the primary issues are contamination, lack of consumer education, and inadequate waste processing technologies at facilities.


One of the most pervasive problems affecting the efficiency of recycling programs is contamination. This occurs when non-recyclable materials are mixed with recyclables or when recyclables are soiled by food waste or other substances. Such contamination can severely compromise the quality of recyclable materials, making them unsuitable for the recycling process. For instance, a single greasy pizza box can contaminate an entire batch of paper, rendering it non-recyclable. This issue not only reduces the volume of materials that can be successfully recycled but also increases processing costs, as contaminated recyclables require additional sorting or disposal.

Lack of Education

The effectiveness of recycling programs is heavily dependent on the participation of informed consumers. Unfortunately, there exists a significant gap in public knowledge regarding what can and cannot be recycled. This gap leads to improper sorting at the source, which exacerbates contamination issues and reduces the overall efficacy of recycling efforts. Detailed, accessible, and community-specific recycling guidelines are essential for educating the public, enhancing participation rates, and ensuring that valuable recyclable materials are not lost to landfills.

Inadequate Waste Processing Technologies

Advancements in waste processing technologies have the potential to increase the efficiency and output of waste recycling facilities dramatically. However, many facilities across North America are operating with outdated or inadequate equipment that cannot effectively handle the volume and complexity of today’s recyclable materials. This leads to lower recovery rates and higher chances of valuable recyclables being sent to landfills. Investing in modern, sophisticated waste processing technologies such as pre-shredders, screeners, and waste sorting and separating equipment is crucial for maximizing recycling rates.

How Can Businesses Lessen Their Contribution To Landfills?

It’s up to those in the waste management sector to take assertive steps toward reducing the influx of recyclable waste into landfills. This calls for an intersectional approach that involves investment in proper education and equipment technologies geared toward recycling optimization. Both consumers and businesses play pivotal roles in the recycling ecosystem, and as such, targeted educational initiatives are essential for both sectors.

Educating Consumers

For consumers, education must transcend basic knowledge of what can and cannot be recycled. It should foster an understanding of the impact their waste has on the environment and the substantial benefits of recycling. Programs tailored to different community needs, employing both digital and traditional media platforms, can significantly increase awareness and participation. Schools, community centers, and local governments should collaborate to orchestrate workshops, recycling challenges, and incentive programs that encourage proper recycling practices. Making recycling easy and accessible through clear labeling and the widespread availability of recycling bins also aids in reinforcing educational messages.

Empowering Businesses

For the business sector, the emphasis on education should integrate the economic advantages of recycling more waste materials within their operations. Companies must be made aware of the cost savings potential through waste reduction and recycling programs, as well as the public relations benefits of being seen as environmentally responsible. Whether it’s industry-specific conferences, webinars, or resource-sharing platforms, these can all serve as valuable tools for businesses to learn about implementing effective waste management systems. Additionally, collaborating with waste management experts to develop industry guidelines for recycling can help businesses adapt their operations to be more environmentally friendly.

Waste management experts can help develop industry guidelines for recycling and help businesses adapt operations.

Investment in education for both consumers and businesses is not merely an option but a critical necessity. Creating a culture of recycling and sustainability requires a concerted effort to empower individuals and companies with the knowledge and resources they need to make informed decisions about waste management. Through dedicated educational campaigns and the integration of recycling practices into daily routines and business operations, significant strides can be made in minimizing the environmental footprint of waste.

Investing in Commercial Waste Recycling Solutions

Investing in robust commercial recycling infrastructure is a progressive measure that can open new food waste opportunities as well as other commerical waste streams, and pay dividends both environmentally and economically. Commercial waste recyclers can leverage advanced shredding, screening, separating, and sorting process technologies to improve recycling rates and present recycled materials as viable raw materials for manufacturing sectors.

The Critical Role of Pre-Shredding and Ballistic Separation in Waste Recycling

Pre-shredding is pivotal for the initial phase of the waste recycling process. It serves the essential function of breaking down and downsizing materials before they proceed to more complex sorting and processing stages. This initial step is not merely about reducing physical size but also about preparing materials for a more efficient, streamlined processing downstream. By incorporating advanced pre-shredding technologies like the Komptech Terminator, recycling facilities can handle a wider variety of materials with greater ease and overall efficiency, maximizing treatment productivity by providing a consistent waste stream flow.

C&D waste processing line with a Komptech pre-shredder followed by ballistic separator.
A C&D processing line with a Komptech high-torque shredder followed by a ballistic separator.

Once incoming waste material has been properly downsized, processes downstream become much easier to streamline. Many waste recycling facilities have found tremendous success with utilizing ballistic separation immediately following pre-shredding. The Komptech Ballistor is a ballistic separator that combines screening with ballistic paddle movement to separate 2D, 3D, and fines fractions from C&D, organics waste, single-stream recyclables, and MSW. The lighter 2-dimensional fraction is shaken clean of impurities as it passes across the screen paddles and is transported upwards. The heavier 3-dimensional fraction rolls
downward by ballistic movement and is separated. Variable hole sizes built into the screen paddles filter the fines through the holes. This process reduces the burden depth of materials to be sorted downstream, while also reducing fines and small impurities from entering downstream equipment

By utilizing advanced technologies designed for modern commercial waste processing, recycling operations can optimize production and produce cleaner commodities to increase revenue and maximize landfill diversion.

Optimizing Landfill Space With High-Torque Shredders

In the quest to optimize landfill operations and extend the lifespan of landfill cells, the adoption of industrial waste shredders is fast emerging as an operational game-changer. High-torque shredding technology is specifically designed to tackle the daunting challenge of bulky waste items like mattresses, white goods (refrigerators, washers, etc.), and Construction and Demolition (C&D) debris that traditionally occupy significant airspace within landfills. By strategically shredding these large items directly at the landfill site, the facility can achieve a more efficient use of airspace and significantly improve the compaction ratio of waste materials.

A Komptech Terminator 6000S high-torque shredder processing waste at a landfill site.
A Komptech Terminator 6000S high-torque shredder processing waste at a landfill site.

Low-speed, high-torque shredders deliver unparalleled performance in processing bulky waste, reducing it to manageable sizes that pave the way for enhanced compaction. The impact of this technology on landfill operations is profound—by optimizing the airspace within the landfill cell, facilities can substantially extend their operational lifespan. This not only results in heightened efficiency in waste management practices but also contributes to the preservation of valuable land resources, which are increasingly under pressure due to expanding waste generation rates.

The Call to Action is Clear

By understanding the complexities of waste management and marshaling the collective expertise within the industry, we can substantially lessen the proportion of recyclable materials ending up in landfills. It requires a concerted effort among commercial recyclers and waste management professionals to implement systemic changes that support global sustainability objectives. For those tasked with overseeing the lifecycle of waste materials, the goal is not merely about meeting regulatory requirements but about embodying the role of custodians of the environment. Through thoughtful investments in education and technology, it is possible to drastically reduce the amount of waste ending up in landfills, curb the percentage of trash that is recyclable yet discarded, and explore innovative ways to minimize the number of recyclable materials thrown away. It is through such transformation that the vision of a circular economy moves from concept to palpable reality, ensuring that we leave a more sustainable legacy for future generations.


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