It’s a Dirty Job, but Someone’s Gotta Do It!

How Waste Characterization Studies Work

Who wants to dig through anyone’s trash? Well, we do! Sort of ...

In an ideal world we wouldn’t have waste, but as long as we do, we gather as much information as we can from the material Californians throw away. Every few years CalRecycle conducts a waste characterization study, which provides us with information about what goes to California landfills.

How does it work?

We contact waste management companies throughout California that are willing to participate in the study. A work station with labeled bins is set up at a transfer station, material recovery facility, or landfill. A load of trash, often in garbage bags, is spread onto a sorting table where our CalRecycle contractors pick through each piece of individual trash and places it in the designated bin. Once every piece of waste is sorted into its bin, the material in each bin is weighed and documented. Then another load of trash is placed on the sorting table, and the process starts all over again until the designated amount of waste is sorted.

What do we do with the data?

We collect all the data, write a report, and make the report public so anyone can visit our website and see exactly what California throws away. The data is used to inform waste management policies and laws. We also use it for our education and outreach programs.

Why is this study important?

Information is a good thing, especially when it is collected and analyzed in a scientific manner. We share our waste characterization data not only with the public, but also with lawmakers who propose and pass waste-management laws in California. California often leads the way when it comes to policy change in the United States. We use this data collected from the study to start positively affecting climate change and pollution. We can also find out how much food is being wasted to help prevent future waste while also creating programs to feed the hungry.

Working at CalRecycle affords me the opportunity to participate in waste characterization studies—to an extent. I don’t pick through the trash, categorize it, or analyze the results, but I do get up close and personal by documenting the process in photos. I also get to use the statistics from the study to inform the public. Sure, I know it sounds glamorous, but there are some downsides. Not only is the smell sobering, but so are the mounds and mounds of wasted food— and that’s just one type of waste. There are many more! The good news is, conducting these studies can help us promote food recovery programs that can get edible food to the 1 in 5 Californians who are food-insecure.

So the next time you toss that trash, just know we’re on the other side picking through it to find out what California wastes and how we can prevent it.

— TC Clark
Posted on Oct 18, 2018

Summary: In an ideal world we wouldn’t have waste, but as long as we do, we gather as much information as we can from the material Californians throw away. Every few years CalRecycle conducts a waste characterization study, which provides us with information about what goes to California landfills.