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Behind-The-Scenes of the Waste Industry

Mar 05, 2015

A Recap of “Inside Man with Morgan Spurlock”

By Sara Verrillo

What happens to your waste after it leaves the curb? A recent episode of CNN’s “Inside Man with Morgan Spurlock” set out to answer just that.

If you missed the episode, we’ve recapped what was discussed compared to what happens here in Atlantic County.

Part One: Household Trash

The episode begins in Brooklyn, NY, with Morgan Spurlock, the documentarian behind the hit “Supersize Me,” placing household trash, recycling and electronics on the curb.

After placing his items out, Spurlock joins the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) for a day of hauling trash. The segment shed light on how much hard work goes into being a driver and trash handler. (Watch a short Ted Talk on that here).

After collecting curbside waste, Spurlock follows his trash bag to a transfer station in Brooklyn where Waste Management takes over from DSNY and drives the trash to a landfill in Pennsylvania.  

In Atlantic County, trash does not travel nearly as far as what was shown in the episode. All trash in Atlantic County is mandated to come to the landfill operated by ACUA. When it arrives, trash is first taken to our transfer station where it sits indoors before being landfilled at night.  Because ACUA is located near the Atlantic City Airport, trash is landfilled at night when seagulls return to the coast to roost as a precaution.

When Spurlock travels to the landfill in PA, he learns how a landfill is built to protect the ground and how odors are controlled through misters and gas capturing wells. What was shown is very similar to how ACUA built its landfill and how we capture landfill gas to control odors and power our facilities.

Part Two: Recycling & Plastic Bags

After the trash portion, Spurlock follows his recycling to the SIMS Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Brooklyn. He sees how the recycling is separated first by machines then by hand to ensure all materials are separated properly. The separated materials are then bailed to enter the market.

This is what happens at ACUA’s Recycling Center, which is operated by ReCommunity Recycling. Because Atlantic County uses a single-stream collection method, items are sorted by machines and then by hand. ( Take a virtual tour of ReCommunity’s MRF).

One item that was highlighted for notoriously causing problems in this process is plastic bags. Plastic bags not only get stuck in machinery, but when bailed, there is little to no market for them. The best option is to avoid plastic bags altogether and recycle the ones you do have at a designated recycling bin at the store.

Part 3: Electronics

Spurlock only touches on the many issues currently surrounding electronic recycling.  He briefly shows what happens when electronics are exported to other countries where recycling is not regulated and citizens and the environment are exposed to extremely hazardous conditions.  Much of this issue stems from our overabundance of electronics and the reluctance of manufactures to accept them for recycling. In New Jersey, there are many people working to fix this system and ensure that electronics are recycled properly and safely.

Part 4: The Future

Before the episode ends, Spurlock meets up with a woman from California who is living a “zero-waste” lifestyle with her family. In fact, her entire family throws away just one mason jar of trash per year. She does this by refusing to buy items in packaging and bringing her own containers with her wherever she goes. They try this in a Brooklyn supermarket and find that it takes a little extra effort when purchasing items, like meat, to place in a reusable container, but it is possible.

He also touches on new technologies that may help to eliminate landfilling waste in the future, such as plasma gasification. ACUA intensely researched this and requested proposals for a pilot project at our facilities. Unfortunately, as the episode discussed, these technologies are so new that many are not willing to invest in them and their price is so high that it is not cost-effective to implement them at this time.  It is unfortunate that similar conditions led to the company behind the winning proposal of our pilot project to abandon it at this time.

Despite the setbacks, ACUA and others in the industry are still seeking out new ways to solve our waste problem.


Spurlock’s special reiterates the importance of the 3 R’s – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (with reduce still standing as the best option) and even adds in 2 more – Refuse and Rot, which refer to refusing packaging and composting food waste.

We can all help to tackle waste by following these R’s as a guide and staying in-the-know on the environmental impacts of our waste.

We invite all residents to come see firsthand what happens to trash, recycling and wastewater in Atlantic County by taking a tour of our Environmental Park and Wastewater Treatment Plant. Click here to learn more or schedule online.