Garbage is everywhere. In fact, the EPA estimates that in 2007 the average American generated 4.62 lbs of garbage every single day.
That’s a lot of trash.
But, have you ever given much thought to how long that garbage is going to sit in the landfill once it’s dumped there? Most people give little thought to their garbage after trash day comes around. And if you’re not currently recycling, then most of your trash is going to be there a very, very long time.
So, let’s dive into the world of garbage and see how long our trash is going to stay here on Earth after we’re gone.
Plastic is pretty much a staple in modern life. It’s petroleum based, and it’s estimated we use 1.6 million barrels of oil every year, just making plastic bottled water.
How long does it take plastic to decompose? Well, no one knows for sure, but it’s estimated that plastic won’t begin to decompose in a landfill for at least 1,000 years. (source)
Plastic bags that are exposed to air and sunshine will decompose in 10-20 years (source). But, how much air and sunshine does a landfill get? None.
That’s a long legacy for us to leave.
Good, sweet glass. Glass is one of the easiest things to recycle. Why? Because it’s so simple! Glass is primarily made of sand, and when it’s recycled it’s simply broken up into small pieces, called “cullet”, and then melted down to make a new glass bottle.
Existing glass melts at a much lower temperature than making new glass, so recycling glass saves energy because less is used during the process. It also saves plenty of water.
How long does it take glass to decompose if we just throw it out? Millions of years, if ever (source). Think about it: some black obsidian glass from volcanos has been dated to the beginning of Earth itself. So that glass jar of salsa you just threw out? It’s probably going to be there millions of years from now.
Did you know that every minute, every day, over 120,000 aluminum cans are recycled in the United States (source)? Yep. That’s a pretty amazing statistic.
Want another mind-boggling stat? Ok. Every three months, Americans through away enough aluminum cans to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet (source).
Aluminum cans that buried in a landfill take around 80-200 years to decompose. But when they’re recycled, it takes as much energy to make 20 cans as it does to make one brand new one (source).
Every cigarette butt that’s thrown out the window takes one to five years to decompose. And on ocean cleanups, they’re the #1 source of litter on our beaches (source).
The state of Texas alone estimates that over 130 million cigarette butts are tossed out of car windows every single year. They’re the largest source of litter in that state (source).
And, here’s a sobering statement:
“[Cigarette butts] also present a threat to wildlife. Cigarette filters have been found in the stomachs of fish, birds, whales and other marine creatures who mistake them for food … Composed of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, cigarette butts can persist in the environment as long as other forms of plastic.”
—Clean Virginia Waterways
With newspaper we catch a bit of a break, if you want to call it that. In a landfill, newspaper only takes about 2-4 weeks to decompose (source). But, it’s also the largest element in a landfill based on volume. Newspaper recycles easily, and we’d save so much space!
According to the EPA, food waste is the single largest waste stream in the US by weight (which is different than the newspaper waste, which is #1 by volume).
In 2007, over 12% of our garbage was made of food scraps, which could easily be composted. When food decomposes without oxygen it produces methane, which is 21 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the single largest methane producer in the world, accounting for over 34% of all the methane released into the environment (source).
As far as how long it takes, it differs depending on the food. A banana peel will take around a month; an apple core will take around a month, an orange peel will take 6 months,
Over 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown away every year. And, that’s just in the United States (source).
How long are those stinky diapers hanging around for?
Over 550 years.
Boy, styrofoam. It’s hard to recycle, and most places don’t even try. How long do our little take-out containers stay on Earth for? Well, no one is really sure. But, scientists estimate at least one million years (source).
I don’t know about you, but I was extremely sobered just writing this up. Most of these items I recycle. But I realize now that I definitely need to make more of an effort with my food scraps; I’m sorely lacking in that area. And, the styrofoam statistic is giving me heart palpitations.
Hopefully, though, with awareness comes action. We can make such a difference simply by recycling everything we can, and taking our own reusable containers with us to restaurants so we don’t have to use styrofoam. These little things may not seem like much, but it all counts.