Reading that an item takes eleventy bazillion years to break down in the environment makes for great attention grabbing stuff when writing articles on green living, but the more I research various related topics, the more I find differences in estimations.
Recycling is great as it keeps our landfills from filling up. However, even if we choose to purchase biodegradable plastics and post-consumer made notebooks, it’s not even a guarantee that we’re making a difference.
Take a look at how our modern landfills work. Modern landfills have mountains of regulations and environmental concerns to deal with, making their task of keeping up with the amount of trash we produce to be an extreme duty. Kudos to all who do! It’s truly a thankless job.
What this post is trying to point out is that even despite all the hard work that landfill workers and administrators do to minimize the harm, they can’t do enough in the face of a planet that doesn’t help.
If we continue to purchase more items, with little concern for how those items are made, packaged, delivered, and eventually tossed into the trash, little progress is going to be made on the landfill front.
Garbage can last a lot longer in a landfill, particular if the surrounding environments are dry. LiveScience has a nice walkthrough of what happens in a landfill for those looking for more information.
Dry air really slows down decomposition generally. The research I’ve done shows that the inside of modern landfills are hot and dry, leaving decomposition at a standstill.
In this environment, for example, cardboard can take a full 5 years before it’s fully broken down, whereas in an environment that can induce rotting, cardboard can turn into compost in a mere two weeks.
Here’s a cool video to watch if you want to know how a landfill is designed and what goes into making a landfill work.
Now, what’s it mean to break down? “Break down” is really a vague term and there’s also a big difference in the terms, biodegradable, degradable and compostable; not to mention the types of residues they leave behind, some of which can be toxic. It’s another good reason to recycle where we can, plus recycling energy savings for most types of waste are significant.
Yet, we can get a general guesstimate about waste decomposition and that can help in making purchasing decisions. With all that in mind, here’s a list of common items and how long they take to “break down” in the environment.
Glass bottle 1 million years
Monofilament fishing line: 600 years
Plastic beverage bottles: 450 years
Disposable diapers: 450 years
Aluminum can: 80-200 years
Boot sole: 50-80 years
Styrofoam cup: 50 years
Tin can: 50 years
Leather: 50 years
Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
Plastic film canister: 20-30 years
Plastic bag: 10-20 years (???)
Cigarette filter: 1-5 years
Wool sock: 1-5 years
Plywood: 1-3 years
Waxed milk carton: 3 months
Apple core: 2 months
Newspaper: 6 weeks
Orange or banana peel : 2-5 weeks
Paper towel: 2-4 weeks
Tech Insider has a great video that runs down the main culprits:
The above information was taken from the Pocket Guide to Marine Debris from Ocean Conservancy. It’s sources were the U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota, FL and “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” Audubon magazine, Sept/Oct 1998.
Judging by the figures, I’d guess these would apply when the item is exposed to sunlight and air. Stick some of those items into landfill and in the absence of light and oxygen, chances are they won’t break down for many generations. Even newspapers dumped in landfill have been known to be still readable after many years.
For disposable shopping bags, I’ve seen figures anywhere from 500 – 1000 years (but there’s many different types of plastics) and cigarette butts up to 12 years.
There’s a lot of “ifs”, “buts”, and “maybes” in the above list, so if you have stumbled across a comprehensive list or study of decomposition statistics of various forms of waste with detailed annotations about the conditions in relation to the timeframe, please let me know!
The bottom line is that if we purchase fewer things, we’ll place fewer things into the the landfill. So, let’s work first on minimizing our consuming and maximizing our desire for what we have.