My community has single-bin recycling. Most consumer-level metal, plastic, and paper can go in there to be sorted at a recycling center. They don't take plastic grocery bags, cellophane, paper towels, and pizza boxes. Most of these I can recycle at a more specialized location if I'm feeling like a good citizen.

So most of garbage is food, paper towels, and cellophane.

I'm researching composting, and it seems like the only "organic" things I can't compost are cooked meat and dairy products. A site I'm reading mentions "some paper". Maybe that means paper towels.

But what I'm wondering is, what would be left after disposing of everything I can using the above methods? I get that this is a question with technically an unbounded answer. The sites I've read so far say something like "everything else!" I get that. But what do most people regularly consume and dispose of that wouldn't go in the "trash" bin if they had bins for trash, recycling, and compost?

The first thing that jumps to mind is batteries, but those shouldn't be thrown in the trash if we followed their instructions. Big items like old computers or broken chairs (or whatever) don't normally go in the bin, and generally have better options for getting rid of them (donations, etc.).

So if I'm doing the mostly bare minimum but still following the basic rules on all of the above, what would be left? Dirty diapers and greasy pizza boxes and blocks of cheese that went bad?

I feel like I must be forgetting something obvious.

  • 1
    Given that neither of these answers have really answered your question, this might need an edit. It sounds like your question is something along the lines of "For the average municipality, what makes up the bulk of items going into landfills (assuming recyclables are removed)?" This likely varies a fair bit from country to country.
    – LShaver
    Commented May 18, 2018 at 14:13
  • Pizza boxes without lumps of cheese/meat go in the worm composter for me (they make a good inner cover to keep the contents from drying out). But I don't get through very many and instead make my pizza.
    – Chris H
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 15:31

4 Answers 4


The big challenge for recycling is composite materials. Say a "juice box" tetra pak which is cardboard lined with foil. The foil prevents it from going in the "cardboard and paper" stream and the cardboard prevents it from going in the "foil" stream. Shiny "foil" wrapping paper presents the same problem. Plastic lined cardboard cartons are another problem composite. IF you can, don't buy things in containers like these. Find a brand that comes in a can or a glass bottle.

You mentioned paper towels - they can be composted even in a home compost heap if they were used, for example, when eating a peach. Dirty diapers are welcomed in many municipal compost systems, as are paper towels with nastier contents than peach juice (bacon fat, dog vomit, whatever.) Film plastic including plastic bags are less commonly taken, but I happen to live in a place that takes them. Batteries are "hazardous household waste" and there is often a day for them once a year; in North America many electronics stores will take them (look for a large cardboard bin vaguely near the door, usually sort of hidden behind things they can make money selling.)

Depending on where you live, things like Styrofoam egg cartons might not be taken - so choose the eggs that come in cardboard. (I take egg cartons back to the farm where I got the eggs, to be filled again for someone else.) If you buy berries in those green gridded punnets they generally can't be recycled -- I take those to the farm also so she can use them for her berries. I also reuse fruit and veggie bags many many times before recycling them. Some places don't do the clear rigid plastic that bakeries use. Some places don't do plastic plant pots, though generally the place that sold them to you with seedlings in them will take them back afterwards. By finding other forms of packaging, or other places to take the packaging back to, you can cover a lot of ground.

The big difficulties in North America are the waxy/plasticky liners of cereal boxes, potato chip bags, and composites. This is why my mother has to throw out one small (grocery-sized) bag of garbage every six months. Everything else goes in her (or my) recycling.

  • 2
    Shiny foil wrapping paper and dog vomit paper towels, juice boxes and and batteries and styrofoam egg cartons. Those are a few of my favorite things!
    – Anthony
    Commented May 19, 2018 at 23:28
  • Tetra-pak recycling is becoming more common. I don't know how they're dealt with but recently my collection started taking them with the cardboard (previously they were seperate). This is in the UK
    – Chris H
    Commented May 22, 2018 at 15:30

Composting Meat and Dairy is entirely possible, I recommend Burying it. Otherwise it may become extra smelly and could attracts scavengers like raccoons, bears, possums etc. I typically bury items I am worried will attract critters.

Computer Recycling centers are a thing where I live, and my workplace has a battery recycling bin. Your local recycling center may have a battery option.

Here is an article on dairy composting: http://homeguides.sfgate.com/dairy-composting-78325.html

And a post where people discuss compositing meat: https://www.houzz.com/discussions/1686413/whats-best-way-to-compost-meat-and-dairy?m_refid=us-ptr-mpl-ir-5454-372747-10078&irgwc=1

Believe it or not I found an article about composting pizza boxes. http://keenforgreen.com/b/composting-pizza-boxes

  • But the question I guess I'm trying to wrap my head around is what I should expect to be in my trash when all is said and done. Obviously we should strive to avoid landfills completely, but I want a sort of shorthand in my head for what is trash so I can know without going down the list (so to speak). One that came to mind was the Lysol wipes in the bathroom, since they are toxic but also paper towels and not reusable. On Earth Science, someone suggested water hose, but I think that that's a rare occurrence and also easily repurposed.
    – Anthony
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 15:07
  • I mean, you would know best. it's your trash can... You could chose not to use Lysol wipes. or paper towels, I re-use old clothing as rags. I'm not really sure I can help you with this question. Commented May 17, 2018 at 20:37
  • Assume I'm an average person. I didn't mean to suggest I wanted to know what exactly would be in my trashcan, but what most people would still have leftover that would not normally fit under recycling, compostable, and batteries (and other similar "we know it's not supposed to go in the trash), and obvious repurposable/donatable items. Put another way, if I (the every man) did all of that, would I have 0 trash?
    – Anthony
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 20:51
  • And it's also about isolating those remaining items to get a better handle on what special things can be done (like not using disposable diapers or starting a local community medicine recycling dropoff). Basically I keep thinking there's trash I'm forgetting about, which makes it easier to assume that I have little to no trash and neither would anyone else if they just did the bare minimum.
    – Anthony
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 20:57
  • I think I see where you're coming from. I don't think we can stop our industries from producing so much trash. There is the possibility of reducing our consumption, but even that is a pittance compared to waste in other industries. I don't know if personal praxis is enough for us to get to 'zero waste' in any real way. Commented May 18, 2018 at 14:20

A typical compost is organic. There is a natural chemical process for the organics to break down and can then be used in the lawn or garden. It will tolerate some paper. Paper came from trees so it technically is organic.

Recycle like plastic would take much much longer to break down. They would also interfere with the natural chemical process of the organics. Plastics do not have food value plants.

Plastics break down with UV leaving them out in sun would be better than compost.


Not much is left.

I made a game of it one year when I was single. I heated with wood. This also handled all my paper waste. Vegetable matter went onto the compost heap. Meat, fat, and most bones went to the dog. I didn't buy stuff in tetrapacks. Polyethylene is essentially a heavy wax, so with care to do it with a hot fire, it could go that way too. So my waste stream was about 1 bag a month -- more in summer when I didn't use the fire. Some plastics I wasn't sure of, glass jars, a few tin cans lid ends from frozen juice.

Degredation time:

Some years ago in an oil field in, I think Oklahoma the engineers of the field collection network heard that PE didn't degrade. So they made the network out of PE pipe. MUCH easier to work with than steel. Three years later the pipes were failing -- oil field had a bacteria that thought that PE was a good source of energy.

I told this story to my brother, who is a professional microbiologist. "Sure," he said. "If there is a chemical reaction that produces energy at reasonable temperatures there is almost certainly a bacteria that will exploit it." I refer to this now as "Skipper's Law" Not always easy to find the bacteria that will do what you want.

The problem of waste is one of economics, and is fairly easily solved.

A. Require companies to accept their own products back for recycling. This in effect requires a reverse distribution network. It is now to the companies advantage to make products that can be easily recycled at a place closer than the factory. They then contract their recycle obligation to a more local source. This hits products such as tetrapaks hard. No one is willing to take them apart. I suspect that these would quickly vanish to be replaced with plastic coated cardboard, using a plastic that was easily burnable.

B. We used to recycle bottles. Beer bottles in particular were universal, and made 6-12 round trips before getting lost or chipped. The introduction of the long neck, then fancy shapes, and colours made this more difficult. So this problem can be solved in a different way with a tax incentive. Create a set of categories (dripper size, beverage, soft foods, hand access) and sizes. The most popular of each container gets the lowest tax. Something like 20c/liter base charge, then 10R^2, where R is the popularity ranking for that category most popular, rank 0, next most rank 1. A company that uses a custom bottle now has an absurdly high rank, and pays an enormous surcharge.

C. Everything is barcoded or rfid coded or taggant coded with the part and material. (A taggant is a tracer added to explosives. It consists of a thin chunk of ceramic coated with multiple coloured glazes, then ground up. The glazes aren't harmed by the explosion, and they can be easily sequenced with a microscope. Should be ammenable to robot sorting.) Fluorescent dyes could be added to materials. this allows material to be sorted by their fluorescent spectrum under UV scan.

D. Robotics, and machine vision. Clever machines can sort most of the material.

  • I like the reverse supply line ideas a lot.
    – Anthony
    Commented May 20, 2018 at 19:02
  • "Home fireplaces, wood stoves, and backyard incinerators are not meant to burn paper. Modern paper contains many harmful chemicals like plastics, varnishes, and even formaldehyde. When burned, these chemicals can be released into the atmosphere and cause serious health problems for anyone who breathes them in." (Source.) Do not burn paper. It is not safe, and you may be ticketed. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 19:01
  • Burning plastic produces by-products which are even worse. Never, ever burn plastic. The only safe place to burn plastic is at a commercial incinerator or waste-to-energy facility. Such places have scrubbers to prevent harmful levels of dioxins, furans, and other hazardous pollutants from escaping into the air we breathe. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 19:04

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