Where does our trash go?

A reflection on a day at the landfill

Pam Clough | Used by permission
Plastic waste was prevalent at the Cedar Hills Landfill in Washington.

Take Action

Last week, we had an opportunity to tour Cedar Hills Landfill in Maple Valley, WA.  Visiting this 920 acre landfill, about 40 minutes outside of Seattle, really shined a light on where our trash goes after we throw something “away” in a trash bin.

When we put that unrecyclable juice box, with layers of plastic, metal, and cardboard- or even the thin plastic film packaging that was surrounding the package of juice boxes- in the trash, throwing it “away” doesn’t mean it just disappears. “Away” means it will most likely end up in a landfill, buried under layers of dirt, amidst methane-producing decomposing organics and other toxic materials leaching chemicals, for centuries.

Pam Clough | Used by permission
Heavy machinery moves trash around at the Cedar Hills Landfill in Washington State.

If you are one of the 1.5 million people who live outside of Seattle in King County, the Cedar Hills Landfill is the destination for most of your garbage. It’s one of nineteen open landfills in the state, and has operated since 1965. At the current rate of trash accumulation (about 3000 tons of trash per day), it is projected to fill up by 2040.  Given that every 15.5 hours, Americans throw out enough plastic to fill the Dallas Cowboy home field (the largest NFL stadium in the country), it’s no wonder that seven states are projected to run out of landfill space in the next five years, and that the entire United States will run out of existing land-fill space in the next 60 years.

Cedar Hills Landfill is the destination for most King County, WA resident's garbage outside of Seattle, or for about 1.5 million people.  It's operated since 1965, and at the current rate of trash accumulation (about 3000 tons of trash per day), it is projected to fill up by 2040. Pam Clough | Used by permission
This landfill tips about 160 loads of trash per day, or ~3000 tons per day. Pam Clough | Used by permission
This pictured area will eventually be completely filled with garbage. Pamela Clough | Used by permission

This all leads to questions: Why do we produce so much garbage, and what are the consequences of producing all this trash? Do we have to be throwing so much away in our landfills? Are there other ways we can manage our waste? 

The answer to these questions comes down to how we’ve structured our economy. Right now, we have a linear material economy, which encourages us to make, use and toss at the greatest possible speed, creating massive environmental and public health impacts in the process.

Staff | TPIN
Staff | TPIN

Roughly 42% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are created in the process of extracting resources, producing goods, disposing of waste, and transporting materials at every stage of that process. Trash incineration releases numerous harmful air pollutants, including highly carcinogenic and hormone-disrupting chemicals like dioxins, which take a long time to break down once they’re in the environment. An estimated 16.5 million tons of plastic washes into the world’s oceans every year, with devastating impacts on marine wildlife like sea turtles, sea birds, and seals.

Many materials that are thrown in the trash, such as food, paper, plastic, metal, and glass, that are landfilled or incinerated could otherwise be composted or recycled. In Washington, more than 50% of consumer packaging and paper products are going to landfills or incinerators. This is the equivalent of throwing away $104 million in commodities that could be made into new items.  

Meanwhile, recycling rates in Washington have stagnated and even declined since 2011, while costs for many Washington residents have increased significantly. Unfortunately, it is residents, the environment and future generations who bear the costs of managing all this waste, not the companies whose products create the waste. In turn, companies have little incentive to build products that last, are easy to repair, use less packaging, or have packaging that is easy to reuse, recycle or compost.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have the tools to shift away from this wasteful, polluting and costly linear system to a circular material economy that produces zero waste, conserves natural resources, and limits pollution and global warming emissions.

Fortunately, Washington legislators have started taking steps towards a zero waste future. State lawmakers have already started eliminating some of the most problematic plastic materials, such thin, single-use plastic bags and polystyrene foam coolers, foodware, and packing peanuts.  In 2022, the legislature passed a bill that will reduce the amount of methane-producing organic materials in landfills and help increase municipal composting throughout the state. This year, lawmakers passed another plastic reduction bill that will improve access to water bottle refill stations, ban some types of foam docking, and replace mini single-use toiletries at lodging establishments with bulk shampoo, conditioner, and soap dispensing.

Staff | TPIN

But, there is a lot more we need to do to stop the flow of plastic and other trash into our landfills. Lawmakers should require that goods be built to last and easy to repair, reuse, recycle or compost. While the Fair Repair Act failed to advance last session, state lawmakers will have another opportunity in 2024 to ensure that manufacturers provide consumers and independent repair shops with the parts, tools, and information necessary to fix their stuff.  

Additionally, we should establish a producer funded recycling system in Washington state, so that brand owners and manufacturers are financially responsible for the end-of-life of their products, rather than those costs falling on residents. The Washington Recycling and Packaging (WRAP) Act would establish such a program in the state and:

  • incentivize companies to reduce wasteful packaging and use materials that are reusable, compostable, or actually recyclable,
  • expand curbside recycling services to all Washingtonians with curbside garbage pickup at no cost to ratepayers, and
  • reduce confusion and contamination by developing a clear common list of what can be recycled statewide and ensuring that product labels reflect actual recyclability in WA.

While it might not be everyday we get the towering reminder of a mountain of trash about the dire situation of our waste problem, most folks know that our system isn’t working for our environment, or our health and well-being. We have ample opportunity to be less trashy- so let’s get to work.

Join our efforts to establish producer responsiblity for recyclables in Washington.

Are you a student who wants to reduce plastic and act on climate?
Are you a local elected official in support of producer responsibility?

Sign onto our local elected official sign-on letter here.

Want to learn more about the benefits for local governments? Check out this factsheet. 

Interested in volunteering?

Join our grassroots team here, and sign our petition below!


Pam Clough

Advocate, Environment Washington

As an advocate with Environment Washington, Pam develops and runs campaigns to protect Washington's air, water, and special places. She has worked on issues ranging from clean energy climate solutions, preventing plastic pollution, defending clean water, and protecting our special natural spaces. Pam lives in Steilacoom, Washington, where she enjoys kayaking on the Puget Sound, gardening and hiking in the surrounding mountains.

Find Out More
staff | TPIN

Help defend our oldest forests.

Mature forests are on the chopping block. With your support, we can stand up for the trees. Will you donate today?