Behind the scenes of a city: Trash in L.A.

The video, made by Mae Ryan for Los Angeles public radio KPCC, traces trash from a burger lunch to its ultimate fate in a landfill. It reminds me of those great, old Sesame Street videos where you got to see what goes on inside crayon factories and peanut butter processing plants. Which is to say that it is awesome.

The process you see here, though, is L.A.-centric, which started me wondering: How much does the trash system differ from one place to another in the United States?

Over the last couple years, as I researched my book on the electric system, I spent a lot of time learning about how different infrastructures developed in this country. If there's one thing I've picked up it's the simple lesson that these systems—which we are utterly dependent upon—were seldom designed. Instead, the infrastructures we use today are often the result of something more akin to evolution ... or to a house that's been remodeled and upgraded by five or six different owners. Watching this video it occurred to me that there's no reason to think that the trash system in place in L.A. has all that much in common with the one in Minneapolis. In fact, it could well be completely different from the trash system in San Francisco.

I'd love to see more videos showing the same story in different places. Know of any others you can point me toward?

Suggested by maeryan on Submitterator

Video Link


  1. Very nice and entertaining video. But there’s there’s one important step missing – that’s the step where dumpster divers, the homeless, identity thieves and the plain curious pick through the dumpster in search of discarded electronics, bric-a-brac and assorted broken junk to re-purpose or sell

    This important step usually occurs most heavily during the crucial hours immediately prior to trash pick up day, when bins and dumpsters are at their optimum fill capacity. Many people depend on trash bins and recycling bins as supplemental sources of income. Loose-knit groups such as the Freegans have sprung from this phenomenon


    Here is a local video, more informative but less stylish, from the County of Santa Barbara. I helped make this video, and we need to work on our lines more!

    Working in this field, I don’t think there is that much difference in the system, except for the fact that most of the country isn’t doing as well as LA or where I work in Santa Barbara County. Recycling rates nationally are way below LA’s 65% or Santa Barbara County’s 75%. This is because most areas don’t have the same active markets in recyclables.

    However, these systems are similar to the electrical grid in that they are often not designed in a single step. One reason is that existing landfills and transfer stations are important as siting these facilities is difficult (NIMBY). I haven’t had the pleasure of reading your book, but I am sure you could see more parallels than I can from where I am sitting.

  3. Here’s the Prince George’s County, Maryland facility:

     I wondered if and how they sorted the recycling, as they pick it up in regular garbage trucks.  Until a few years ago they used a different type of truck, with separate bins for different materials.

    No garden hoses!

  4. You get some sense of how these things differ by living (or just spending a fair amount of time) in different places. Even just adjacent cities – most Orange County cities have their own waste disposal systems, for example. What you have to do with your trash (i.e. how much it needs to be sorted) gives you a good idea of what will happen next.

    It’s also interesting to compare to systems in developing countries. Spending any amount of time in such a place makes you grateful for how much effort is put into waste disposal and recycling in developed countries!

  5. Here’s a great NPR article that tries, “Following Garbage’s Long Journey Around The Earth,” from the perspective of US waste and consumption.

  6. Here’s a great NPR article that tries, “Following Garbage’s Long Journey Around The Earth,” from the perspective of US waste and consumption.

  7. I saw a really great documentary about Cairo’s Garbage City. It’s part of a series called Cities on Speed. Sounds like what you are looking for.

    Also I collect old 16mm educational films and found a film from the 70’s called Toast by Daniel Hoffman that follows the energy grid from start to finish (bread popping out of a toaster) and shows the hidden cost supplying energy. It has a soundtrack by members of Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream I believe. Far out. The trailer on YouTube doesn’t do it justice.

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