The Decomposition of Waste in Landfills

A Story of Time and Materials

A bar graph showing how long it takes for various garbage items to decompose

Image by Colleen Tighe © The Balance 2019

From a sustainability perspective, it's important to know how long it takes various types of garbage to decompose. We should focus our efforts especially on reducing the consumption of products that generate waste materials that take a long time to completely break down.

Let’s review how long it takes for various waste categories to decompose in landfills, along with some relevant statistics.

The rate of decomposition can depend on landfill conditions.

Plastic Waste

Plastic products are very common in our modern life. According to the Pacific Institute, we used approximately 17 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles in 2006. Plastic waste is one of many types of wastes that take too long to decompose. Normally, plastic items can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills. Even plastic bags we use in our everyday life take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to decompose, and plastic bottles can take 450 years or more.

Disposable Diapers

In the United States alone, about 3.3 million tons of disposable diapers were thrown away in 2018. These disposable diapers take approximately 250-500 years to decompose in landfills, thus underscoring the importance of programs offering diaper and absorbent hygiene product recycling.

Aluminum Cans

About 42.7 billion aluminum cans, over 81,000 cans per minute, were recycled in America in 2019. But, at the same time, in every three-month period in the U.S., enough aluminum cans and packaging are thrown away—2.66 billion tons in 2018—to rebuild the entire American commercial air fleet. Aluminum cans take 80-100 years in landfills to completely decompose.  

Glass

Glass is normally very easy to recycle due to the fact that it's made of sand. By simply breaking down the glass and melting it, we can produce new glass. But the shocking fact is that if glass is thrown away in landfills, it takes a million years to decompose. And according to some sources, it doesn’t decompose at all. 

Paper Waste

Paper is the largest element in American municipal solid waste. Normally, it takes two to six weeks in a landfill to get completely decomposed, but can take decades, depending on moisture levels within the landfill. Recycling paper items saves a lot of landfill space while also reducing the energy and virgin material usage demanded by making non-recycled paper. Recycling paper items saves a lot of landfill space while also reducing the energy and virgin material usage demanded by making non-recycled paper.

Food Waste

Food is the second largest waste item in American landfills. The time taken for food waste decomposition depends on the type of food. Normally, an orange peel takes six months, while an apple core takes around two months, and a banana peel takes two to 10 days, to decompose. Composting and food waste recycling are great ways to divert food waste away from landfills.

Other Waste Items

Different sources have different information on the actual time various waste items take to decompose. Here are some estimates for common waste items:

Waste Item Decomposition Time
Cigarette butts 10-12 years
Monofilament fishing line 600 years
Rubber boot soles 50-80 years
Foamed plastic cups 50 years
Leather shoes 25-40 years
Milk cartons 5 years
Plywood 1-3 years
Cotton gloves 3 months
Cardboard 2 months
Styrofoam Does not biodegrade
Nylon fabric 30-40 years
Tin can 50 years
Ropes 3-14 months
Aluminum cans 80-100 years
Train tickets 2 weeks
Batteries 100 years
Sanitary pads 500-800 years
Wool clothing 1-5 years
Tinfoil Does not biodegrade

Final Note

The increasing volume of waste is a major concern for humans and the environment. The best way to deal with this problem is to avoid products that generate waste materials that take more than a year to decompose in landfills. Every household and organization should also have a proactive plan for recycling to divert more materials away from the waste stream.

Article Sources

  1. Pacific Institute. “Fact Sheet, Bottled Water and Energy: Getting to 17 Million Barrels.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  2. United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Environmental Factoids.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  3. ACS Publications. “Degradation Rates of Plastics in the Environment,” Pages 3495, 3499-3500, 3503. Download PDF. Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  4. United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Nondurable Goods: Product-Specific Data.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  5. Real Diaper Association. “Diaper Facts.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  6. The Aluminum Association. “The Aluminum Can Advantage.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  7. Statista. “Number of Aircraft in the U.S. Commercial Aircraft Fleet From 2006 to 2020.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  8. Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “How Much in Weight Can an Average Size Airplane Hold?” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  9. United States Environmental Protection Agency. “Aluminum: Material-Specific Data.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  10. CA.gov. “Just the Facts.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  11. United States Environmental Protection Agency. “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  12. Waste Advantage Magazine. “How Long Does It Take for Garbage to Decompose?” Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  13. Susquehanna University. “The Decomposition of Forest Products in Landfills,” Page 148. Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.

  14. The 8th International Conference on Advanced Materials and Systems. “Biodegradable Materials - Some Untold Tales of Fiction and Consumer High Expectations!,” Page 15. Accessed Jan. 16, 2021.