Waste In Focus: Photo Series Digs Into America’s Trash

On average, Americans send about half their waste to landfill. Focused on spreading awareness about this eye-opening issue, our Glad® team sponsored award-winning photojournalist Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio’s newest photo series, a project called Waste in Focus, that takes a real life, moment-in-time look at what eight families around the country are recycling, composting and sending to landfill in a recent week.

Here Faith shares some thoughts from this experience, along with some of Peter’s photos.

What surprised you most in what you saw in each family’s waste-disposal habits?
We were most surprised by the amount of prepared food that we found in people’s trash. In some cases it was more than 50 percent of their total food waste. This is in keeping with national statistics but it was a shock to see it in real life. I had our families save their food in separate containers so that I could ascertain edible versus inedible waste to determine the weight values. We were also surprised by the lack of newsprint until we learned from recyclers that while it is coveted material and highly recyclable, in many places few people read newspapers now.

Anderson Family_Phoenix

The Anderson family from Phoenix, Arizona.

Is the average household’s knowledge and instincts regarding waste management close or far from the ideal? 

This is hard to discern from our small sample, but I would say that most of our eight families’ knowledge of waste management was typical of their location. San Franciscans who are homeowners are highly educated about waste and motivated to both recycle and compost correctly. We understand that this is also the case for renters, although slightly less so. It seems to be a point of pride of many people we encounter in San Francisco to lessen the landfill waste they generate.

There were varying degrees of adherence to recycling guidelines in the other municipalities, but this was mostly due to misunderstanding of the rules in place.

McCrary Rao Family_San Francisco

The McCrary Rao family from San Francisco, California

One of our Atlanta families was very good about recycling plastic food and beverage containers but didn’t know that the other plastics in their waste stream could also be recycled.

There is a lot of confusion about thin film plastic across the board. Plastic grocery bags, especially, are confusing because they’re often labeled as recyclable, but can’t go into the municipal recycling stream. Even those who are educated about recycling have a hard time resolving what the symbol represents if an item so marked can’t be put into a recycling bin. That point of confusion is the reason that recyclers have to stop their machines two or more times a day to hand cut away thin film plastic caught in their machinery.

Composite materials are also a giant point of confusion for both the recyclers and residents. I developed a list of items after parsing each family’s trash and recycling bins to determine recyclability only to learn that even the recyclers weren’t sure. Items that are metal/plastic/paper sandwiches are very difficult to recycle, and many can’t be. We here in the U.S. live in a consumer society, and while all of us have the opportunity to mediate our purchasing, manufacturers have a responsibility to reduce packaging and make what remains as recyclable as possible.

The Griffin family from Atlanta, Georgia

The Griffin family from Atlanta, Georgia

What needs to be emphasized about “waste literacy” to help people? 

Recyclers tell us the most important part of education is keeping the rules/guidelines simple enough so that people don’t just give up. Grade school seems to be the best place for children to begin to learn the rules of waste and recycling, bring them home, and apply them with the help of their parents. School projects brought home also serve to educate the parents. In addition, each of the municipal recycling centers we worked with expressed an interest in hosting this project, both for the public and the many school groups that tour their facilities.

The phrase we find to have better resonance is “lessening our waste footprint.” The two phrases aren’t interchangeable of course, but the idea of lessening one’s waste footprint is an action, and certainly education would be a part of that. One can be made literate on a subject, but still not cause an action.

Wimms Brant Family_NYC

The Wimms Brant family from New York City

The lack of clearly marked recycling bins alongside trash bins. This is true in our houses and in public spaces. Most of us don’t yet have designated recycling bins anywhere but one central location — usually in the kitchen area. For some of us that distance between bathroom or bedroom and the recycling bin in a kitchen or entry is insurmountable.

Outside of the house, the problem is even greater. Our favorite public bin sighting to date was one with a beautifully engraved metal lid with two openings: one marked “recycling,” and the other “trash.” Unfortunately both openings dropped into the same big bucket. Obviously that top was meant for a split can. The contents were a mix of landfill trash and recycling.

Faith D’Aluisio is a former award-winning television news producer. She is the editor and lead writer for the book-publishing imprint Material World Books. Peter Menzel is a freelance photojournalist known for his coverage of international feature stories on science and the environment. His award-winning photographs have been published in GEO, Stern, Le Figaro, Der Speigel, Paris Match, Focus, Muy Interesante, El Pais, National Geographic, Smithsonian, the New York Times Magazine, and Time. The couple lives in the United States in Napa, California. They have four sons: Josh, Jack, Adam and Evan.