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How Long Does It Take for Trash to Decompose?

Trash decomposing on the side of a cliff


We've all heard the rumor of how Styrofoam never decomposes and how plastic takes millions of years to decompose, but are they true? There is a reason why it is so important to recycle and keep the amount of trash going to landfills low. Things such as plastic, Styrofoam, and glass take more than our own lifetime to decompose due to the materials it is made out of and that's only if it is exposed to enough sunlight and oxygen. Pollution is a growing problem that is slowly starting to affect us and the way we will be living our lives in the future. Educating ourselves and the generations to come can go a long way in our fight against problems such as climate change and chronic illnesses caused by pollution.

Decompose vs. Biodegrade vs. Photodegrade

When talking about garbage, we tend to use the terms "decompose" and "biodegrade" interchangeably for the word "rot", but decompose has a second meaning. Decomposition can also mean physically breaking down into smaller pieces that are different from something rotting. It is suggested to look carefully into the different estimations of decomposition provided by various industries to see how the term is being used.

Biodegradable means that something can be broken down over time by bacteria and other living organisms. Nature recycles things by breaking them down for nutrients from things that were once living materials. We as humans interrupt the cycle by throwing items such as plastic bags and glass bottles, which are non-biodegradable, into the mix. These are basic household objects that we use every day and, more often than not, put into a trash can rather than recycling them or reusing them for something else.

Photodegrade is more similar to decomposition but is also more specific. Photodegrade is when something is exposed to ultraviolet radiation from the sun's rays, it starts to become brittle, crack, and eventually turns into microscopic granules.

How Long Does It Take for Trash to Biodegrade?

Different articles of trash will not have the same decomposition rate because of the different materials they are made up of. Some things might decompose within a few years while others will take hundreds given the right conditions. Certain materials like paper products take much less time.

Items that take 100 years or less

  • Paper towels: 2-4 weeks

  • Newspaper: 2-4 weeks

  • Plain unwaxed cardboard: 3 months

  • Cotton shirt: 3-6 months

  • Rope: 1 year

  • Plywood: 1-3 years

  • Waxed milk carton: 5 years

  • Cigarette: 1-5 years

  • Disposable diaper: 10-20 years

  • Plastic bag: 10-20 years

  • Leather: 50 years

  • Nylon: 30-40 years

  • Steel can: 80-100 years

A cotton shirt takes about 3-6 months which is also around the same amount of time it takes for someone to build a house. Think before you decide to throw your clothes away simply because they got a little dirty. We use paper towels and napkins every day and more than one each time. The amount of time it takes from the moment you throw it into the bin for it to decompose can be compared to binge-watching every episode of "Law & Order" which is about 450+ episodes, or two weeks.

Items that take more than 100 years

  • Aluminum can: 200-400 years

  • Ziploc bag: 300 years

  • Plastic bottle: 450 years

  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years

  • Glass bottle: thousands to millions of years

  • Styrofoam: Never

  • Tinfoil: Never

All of these items take a lot of time to decompose, but that does not mean that all hope is lost. Aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles are some of the most recycled items in the United States today. Glass is one of the very few resources that can be recycled almost infinitely without losing its quality.

How Long Does It Take For Organic Items to Decompose?

Organic materials, such as food waste, decompose in landfills due to the presence of microorganisms. These microorganisms break down the organic matter into simpler compounds, such as carbon dioxide and water.

The decomposition time of organic materials in landfills can vary greatly depending on the type of material and the conditions in the landfill.

Fruit and vegetable decomposition times

Fruit and vegetables are some of the quickest materials to decompose, but landfill conditions are often not ideal for fast decomposition.

Vegetables can take from 5 days to 1 month. Most fruit cores and peels will take about 1 month (Except orange peels, they'll take 6+ months). Nutshells and hulls also take a long time, about 3+ years. One that might surprise you, lettuce can take 25 years to decompose! Check out this blog post for a complete list of food decomposition.

Composting is a more environmentally friendly option for food waste than landfills, as it produces less methane.  

Meat and dairy decomposition times

Meat and dairy products take significantly longer to decompose in landfills compared to fruits and vegetables. Cheese can take up to four years. Beef and pork meat have decomposition times of about two years. Bones from animal carcasses, however, can take between 10 to 1000 years!  

How Do We Know It Takes This Long?

Many of the things listed above haven't been around for more than 100 years so how do we know that it takes hundreds or even thousands of years for these things to decompose? There is no firsthand evidence of the decomposition rate but these things can be observed through respiratory tests that scientists conduct. They do this by placing a solid waste sample, such as an apple core or paper towel, into a microbe-rich compost vessel and measuring the amount of CO2 produced. The results of the carbon dioxide levels serve as indicators for degradation.

Plastic bags and aluminum cans are a different story altogether because when items like these are placed into a vessel, no CO2 is produced. This is because the materials that they are made out of are not recognized by microorganisms as food. The approximation of a few hundred years comes from experts observing how some things photodegrade. The reason why times vary from hundreds to thousands of years for the same item is that it is just an estimate and is another way for scientists to say that it takes "a very long time" for things to eventually decompose because they aren't completely sure how long.

What Happens When Trash Goes to a Landfill?

It is estimated that Americans discard 4 pounds of waste per person a day. That totals more than 220 million pounds of trash every year and more than half of that ends up in a landfill. To keep liquids from seeping out and getting into the soil, modern landfills have a base made up of clay and rubber. On top of this are the tight pack mounds of waste and when a landfill has reached capacity, a layer of clay and rubber is put on top. On top of that will be a layer of dirt, soil, and plants. This design is not made to break down waste but only to store it. Landfills do decompose but very slowly because of the lack of oxygen and sunlight.

Chalk outline of person throwing litter away for landfill decomposition

What Can We Do?

Many of the things we use every day are made from materials that take a long time to decompose, so what can we do to reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills? One thing we can do is reduce the use of these products and try to live sustainably. Many of these products have alternatives that are much better for the environment. Instead of using plastic bags, reusable bags can be bought inside grocery stores to replace them. Buying a water cooler and a reusable water bottle is better than buying cases of water from the grocery store. More information on products such as these can be found in our article, Zero Waste Products.

Another way we can reduce the amount of waste going into landfills is by recycling. Instead of throwing an empty aluminum can out, putting it into the recycling bin where it can get taken to a facility, sorted, and reused is a much better option. For more information on recycling, check out our article, Simple Recycling. For food items, composting is another option other than having to throw it in the trash.

Have A Lot of Debris?

Sourgum Waste can help you get rid of large amounts of unwanted debris with ease, while still maintaining environmental sustainability. We do everything we can to divert waste from landfills and into recycling facilities, and everything from construction debris to food waste we try to divert. Our roll-off dumpsters are a great choice to remove large amounts of waste or bulky items. We even plant a tree for every dumpster rented to offset the carbon emissions from delivery and pickup! Try our easy online dumpster rental ordering process

Alliance disposal truck on front lawn of home

Looking for environmentally friendly waste services?

Sourgum Waste not only provides you with the best service at the best price, but we are also committed to sustainability. We divert waste from landfills whenever possible and plant a tree for every order placed through us.

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