What Is the Impact of Taking Out the Trash?

Contributor: Ann Keeney. Lesson ID: 11640

Besides making your parents happy, what's the big deal about throwing out garbage? It doesn't just disappear; it affects air, water, soil, and all living creatures! Learn how to be more responsible!


Earth Science

learning style
personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Quick Query

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Did you ever have the chore of taking out the garbage? Did you ever wonder where the garbage goes, or how it impacts your environment?

taking out the trash

Garbage has been a part of our world for centuries.

First, let's define "garbage." Garbage can be defined as anything that is no longer of use, or no longer needed or wanted; for example, food waste from the kitchen.

The terms "garbage" and "trash" are often used interchangeably; however, garbage can include food waste, while trash does not.

While there are some types of garbage — like table scraps — that can be reused or recycled, most garbage ends up in landfills. Some types of garbage, like motor oil, chemicals, Styrofoam, and plastics, can have an adverse affect on the environment.

What sort of impact do you think garbage has had on your environment — the natural world in which we live? Think about this question as you go through this lesson.

garbage infographic

Think about what you throw away each day. You may throw away egg cartons, bags, and cups, and then the trash collector comes and takes it all away. However, just because it is out of your sight, and you may have forgotten about what you threw away, it's not really gone.

Most garbage is simply relocated from your garbage can at home or school to a landfill or incinerator. Both of these facilities process garbage, but both have issues that affect the environment.

  • Incinerators These burn the garbage that is deposited. The burning process emits toxic dioxins, mercury, cadmium, and other particulate matter into the air, and converts waste into toxic ash.
  • Landfills There are thousands of active landfills, and many old landfills, in the United States alone. Landfills are a major source of methane emissions and produce leachate, a toxic fluid that comes from the compressed trash.

Landfills are designed to keep garbage dry, and are lined to prevent leachate from contaminating nearby soil and groundwater. However, the liners eventually begin to degrade, tear, and crack, allowing toxins to escape directly into the environment.

While incinerators and landfills can harm the environment by processing garbage, there are also certain types of garbage that are toxic on their own. Some facts you may find shocking about your garbage:

  1. The average American throws away more than 7 pounds of garbage a day. That's 102 tons in a lifetime, more than any other population on Earth.
  2. Americans throw away 60 million water bottles a day! That is nearly 700 each minute.
  3. Americans throw away 28 billion pounds of food a year.
  4. Ten percent of the world's oil supply is used to make and ship disposable plastics, like plastic utensils, plates, and cups, that are used just one time and thrown away.
  5. Most communities spend more on dealing with trash than they spend for schoolbooks, fire protection, libraries, and parks.
  6. Americans waste 4.5 million tons of office paper a year.
  7. On average, Americans use 500 plastic bags each year. These bags make up the second-most common type of garbage found on beaches!

Before moving on to the Got It? section, tell a parent or teacher how the garbage you throw away affects the environment.

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