How Long Does It Take for Garbage to Decompose?

by heather

garbage-bagGarbage 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

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.

Glass

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.

Yikes.

Aluminum Cans

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).

Cigarette Butts

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

Newspaper

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!

Food Waste

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,

Disposable Diapers

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.

Styrofoam Containers

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).

Last Word…

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.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Steven@hundredgoals May 5, 2009 at 6:03 pm

It is definately amazing how much waste we generate as individuals, but to think of it on a global scale is mind-numbing. I organized my first highway cleanup this past weekend and we actually ran out of garbage bags!!! It was only a 2-mile stretch of highway…

We have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because it means that we CAN improve. Like anything, it is going to take time. We are doing much better than 25 or 30 years ago I think (I can’t say I know because I wasn’t really around).

Keep spreading the word and doing what you can as an individual!!!

Amy C. December 2, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I was absolutely disgusted with how long some of these items last in our environment. A friend stated that when she thought of our planet years from now, it will look like the movie \Wall-E\. It may not be far off to say that this is true.

Sandra N. February 7, 2010 at 8:21 pm

We should really get people to read this. Maybie they’ll feel sorry for the earth and start recycling.Did you know that a cute little otter got killed from mistakening plastic for food?

heather February 8, 2010 at 2:40 pm

@Sandra, It’s sad but it happens far more often than we realize, which is why recycling is so important. Thanks so much for writing in!

P.K. February 22, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I love your aritcles that you posted.

stanislaus April 16, 2010 at 10:00 am

we should recycle!!!!!!!!!

Paul Maples May 12, 2010 at 8:19 am

Great article! You mention how important it is to recycle, but we need to change some other habits as well. We can look for items that use less, or no, packaging. Fruits and vegetables can be bought fresh, without packaging. These create nothing to recycle, nothing to go into a landfill and no energy exhausted for packaging. If you buy locally grown products, you also are saving fuel for the products to get to market. Don’t forget to pick up at least one piece of trash everyday-and spread the word.

Kris June 16, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Um…Carbon dioxide isn’t damaging to the environment at all. That is the gas that we exhale, that plants take to make oxygen. Could you possibly mean carbon monoxide which is the stuff that cars “exhale”?

Eric July 24, 2010 at 12:30 am

@Kris carbon dioxide, while not dangerous in small amounts, is a greenhouse gas and thus contributes to global warming. This is one of the many reasons why “going green” involves the planting of additional trees to rid the air of excess carbon dioxide. Also, in high amounts carbon dioxide can cause headaches, drowsiness and even unconsciousness. Which is what eventually will happen if we do not stop the ever-increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the air.
Carbon MONoxide is definitely much more toxic though.

Relating to the article, thanks for enlightening me on just how long styrofoam takes to decompose. I already knew about the dilemma with plastic, but i did not know that styrofoam took THAT long.
Great article!

jsoie October 29, 2010 at 11:14 am

that was very interesting thanks for the info it helped alot with my 3rd grade science fair project that im typeing in typeing class so i just wanted to say thanks alot for everything peace 🙂

josie October 29, 2010 at 11:18 am

the mesage saying that was very interesting thanks for everything with my 3rd grade science fair blah blah blah my name is not jsoie its josie

Gabby December 8, 2010 at 11:57 pm

Glass isn’t truely a solid. So why would it take so long? What about if the bottle is broken, then do you know how long it would take?

David March 17, 2011 at 9:54 am

All of these figures sound terribly made up, especially when you toss around word like “millions of years”. How in the world could anyone know what happens in a million years? Even carbon dating is admittedly flawed yet global warming activists rely on these frail, guestimated figures as a scientific truth. We can only say, with very limited accuracy, what may breakdown within a few hundred years. The recent tragic events in Japan prove that the earth is far more powerful than our plastics, metals and oils could ever be. Recycling is great and we should strive to do more of it but articles like this merely relegate your plea to the old “hell fire and brimstone” warnings of the “repent for Jesus” churches of old time. Be more careful when you say “millions” because that is a much longer time than anyone, including scientists, could ever truly imagine.

db June 19, 2011 at 1:11 am

Good news is that we will eventually run out of oil and therefor plastic in its current configuration. The extreme weather we have seen lately could be due in part to human activity like carbon emissions. If we do not kill our host (earth) it may shake us off like a dog with fleas. We are part of nature and nature will find homeostasis regardless of what we do. It’s only natural.

Hefty Trash Bag Coupons March 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm

You really opened my eyes on some issues I never thought about much until I came across you post.

Jaylen Craig December 10, 2014 at 11:56 am

i love to throw stuff away in the trash and don’t recycle ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ellas November 17, 2016 at 1:40 pm

So what you saying that do not throw away old food throw it and zip-lock bag in then throw it away and i not going to make your trash can smell bad

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