Morgan Spurlock Digs Up the Trajectory of Our Trash

America has a waste problem. The average person generates 4.38 pounds of trash per day, which comes out to nearly 1,600 pounds each year! All of that garbage has to go somewhere, but most people are so far removed from the disposal process that they don't think twice about what actually happens. The average citizen is simply required to slap the lid on the bin, drag it out to the curb, wave goodbye to its contents as the garbage truck pulls away, and then POOF, the trash is gone! In reality, your trash at this stage is only at the very beginning of its end.

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Documentarian Morgan Spurlock decided to follow the trajectory of our waste on his CNN show, Morgan Spurlock Inside Man, providing eye-opening insight into what happens to it, how it hurts the environment, and how we can reduce the amount in the first place. He asks viewers, "When we throw something away, where is away?"

Spurlock tracks the waste from his Brooklyn home: a bag of trash, his recyclable materials, and his electronic waste, also known as e-waste. While following these discarded items, it becomes clear that despite our advanced technology, the rate at which we consume and dispose outpaces our efforts to minimize the harmful impacts of our waste stream. For example...

The Travels of Trash

The trash from his home ends up in a landfill (as does the majority of all the waste that we generate as a country). Technology to capture methane from landfills and process it as an energy source is available, but only 7% of our trash goes through this process. Why? The investment costs are high and so far mostly prohibitive for local municipalities and companies that manage landfills.

The Route of Recyclables

His recyclables-- glass, plastic, aluminum, and paper products—are sent to a plant to be sorted, compacted, and repurposed. Most of these items are successfully recycled, but there is no viable technology available to repurpose the plastic bags that transport those items. This amounts to tons and tons of plastic that can end up in a landfill or in our oceans.

The Expedition of E-waste

To follow his e-waste, Spurlock worked with researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to track where his old electronics end up. This is not merely an endeavor prompted by sheer curiosity, however. Breaking down and extracting parts from old electronics can expose workers and the environment to harmful toxins if not done properly, so the process requires strict regulation in the United States. The majority of our e-waste is lawfully recycled by private companies, but there is also a portion that is distributed to developing countries where regulations are looser. Tracking these items is the first step toward protecting the health of workers and the environment in these countries.

The takeaway from the episode is pretty straightforward—we need to be more thoughtful about what we do with our trash
. Even the smallest changes applied at an individual level can have a big impact in the grand scheme of things. Spurlock ends the episode reflecting, "Maybe we're not at a place where we can all live a zero-waste lifestyle, or convert all of our waste to energy. Maybe in time that can happen, but until that does, the most important thing that we can do right now is to make sure we do everything possible to put less of it out into the world to begin with."

Morgan Spurlock Inside Man airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CNN. You can watch the full "United States of Trash" episode online through CNNgo.

We encourage people to do their part by buying fewer items of clothing and making sure old items end up in a yellow bin instead of the trash! Click here to find one near you.