When a person throws something in the garbage, it is seemingly out of their life forever. The problem is, a lot of those items will remain in a landfill for years. With the right conditions, the leftover salad you had for lunch can disappear, or decompose, in a matter of days but the plastic take-out container it came in can take up to 1000 years to break down. Decomposition is the process by which complex organic substances, like the salad, break down into simpler substances by the actions of microorganisms. The rate of decomposition can differ based on factors like temperature, moisture, sunlight and exposure to the elements, and whether the materials are buried or exposed.

So just how long do things take to decompose?

Organic Materials

Most organic materials are able to break down within 90 days, however, this can take much longer in a landfill. Things like fruits and vegetables, table scraps, toilet paper and paper towel rolls, newspaper, and plant materials need oxygen to decompose properly, without it these materials can release harmful gasses like Methane into the atmosphere. Composting is a great way to make sure these materials have the oxygen they need.

To read more about fall composting, check out our blog https://recyclops.com/fall-composting/

Paper & Cardboard

Paper products that are left in the environment to decompose can take anywhere from 2 to 5 months to disappear. Although paper decomposes relatively fast, the problem is the quantity and volume of paper materials that are sent to landfills. The majority of the 268 million tons of landfill and recycling waste generated in the U.S. each year is paper and paperboard, both of which can be recycled. According to the EPA, only 47% of paper and paperboard products are recycled. 

Cardboard takes approximately 2 months to decompose. However, instead of sending your boxes to the landfill consider adding them to your recycling or your compost pile. Cardboard breaks down fairly quickly when exposed to the elements, but stacks of cardboard can take years to decompose.

Metal

Objects made from iron will oxidize and form rust. Microorganisms will break these items down into simple molecules over several years. Tin and aluminum cans are easily recyclable in most areas but can take anywhere from 50 to 100 years to completely break down in the landfill. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable. This means that it can be recycled over and over again without any breakdown in the materials. This makes it one of the most valuable recyclable materials.

Clothing

Fashion waste is a growing problem all over the world. Fast Fashion contributes to 92 billion tons of clothing being sent to landfills every year, that’s a garbage truck full of clothes being dumped every second. One cotton t-shirt can take as long as 6 months to decompose in a well lit and oxygenated environment. Wool socks take 1-5 years to decompose while leather and nylon fabrics, like the kind used for sports jerseys, can take as much as 40 years! Polyester clothing is made out of the same materials as single-use water bottles, which means it will never truly decompose. A lot of clothing is made out of many types of materials which has a tremendous effect on how long it takes to decompose. 

Next time you think about throwing out your used clothing and shoes, consider donating them to a local thrift store or charity where they can be reused and given a new life. Recyclops+ provides pickups for hard to recycle items like clothing. See if the program is available in your area. https://recyclops.com/plus/

Glass

Like aluminum, glass is one of a few items that is infinitely recyclable. When glass is thrown away, it take 1 million years to decompose. Can you imagine someone a million years from now finding the Coke bottle that you sent to the landfill?

Plastic

Not all plastic is created equally. Plastics differ based on chemical composition which can also affect its ability to decompose. For instance, a plastic coated paper milk carton can take 5 years to decompose but a plastic grocery bag will never decompose.

In recent years, people have become more aware of the environmental hazards created by plastic bags. Plastic bags are made from a material called polyethylene, a man-made polymer that microorganisms cannot recognize as food. Although these bags never biodegrade, they can photodegrade. When exposed to sunlight this type of plastic can become brittle and start to crack. This is how microplastics develop. 

Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose. Pollution from plastic bottles is a global problem with most of it ending up in our oceans or breaking down into microplastics that can be found in our food. In the U.S. alone, more that 60 million plastic bottles are thrown away every day. 

Because plastic is a relatively new material, scientists are still studying how each type of plastic can/will decompose. However, all scientists agree it takes “a really, really long time.”

Recyclops+ provides pickups for hard to recycle items like plastic films. To see if the program is available in your area check out  https://recyclops.com/plus/

Plastic bottles make up nearly half of all recyclable materials that end up in landfills and take 450 years to decompose.

Styrofoam

Styrofoam never decomposes. The world’s “throwaway culture” is mainly due to materials like styrofoam existing. More than 3 million tons of styrofoam products are produced in the U.S. every year, the majority of which are single-use items. Styrofoam is cheap to make but is produced at a great cost to the environment. Styrofoam’s lack of density and high contamination rates make recycling styrofoam almost impossible. Americans alone throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups every year, enough to circle the earth over 400 times. Recyclops+ provides pickups for styrofoam. To see if the program is available in your area check out  https://recyclops.com/plus/

Room in our landfills is running out. Materials that are able to decompose need light, water, and oxygen for the microorganisms to be able to help break them down. The sad truth is, most landfills lack the light, water, and bacterial activity required for the decomposition process to even begin. Most non-organic materials will never completely break down. Plastics and glass will get slowly crushed into tiny pieces that will stay in the landfill forever or end up in our water and food sources. Organic materials that lack oxygen create Methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Methane is anywhere from 28-36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Landfills are the single largest source of man-made methane emissions in the U.S. 

 

We must take the necessary steps to ensure that we keep our waste at a minimum. Try to avoid products that take over a year to decompose and recycle when possible. Lowering the amount of waste sent to our landfills can create a healthier environment by reducing greenhouse gasses and making sure less harmful materials end up in our food and water.

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