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 in 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 estimates, every year we use approximately 1.6 million barrels of oil just for producing plastic water bottles. 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, more than 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown away every year. 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

Every minute of every day in America, more than 120,000 aluminum cans are recycled. But, at the same time, in every three-month period in the U.S., enough aluminum cans are thrown away to rebuild the entire American commercial air fleet. Aluminum cans take 80-200 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

Based on volume, paper is the largest element in American landfills. Normally, it takes two to six weeks in a landfill to get completely decomposed. 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

By weight, food waste is the 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 or a banana peel takes around one month 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 in landfills. 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
Painted board 13 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 200-250 years
Train tickets 2 weeks
Canvas products 1 year
Batteries 100 years
Lumber 10-15 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.