The Decomposition of Waste in Landfills: A Story of Time and Materials

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Image by Colleen Tighe © The Balance 2019

From a sustainability perspective, answering the question of how long it takes various types of garbage to decompose is important. We should reduce the consumption of products that generate waste materials that take a long time in landfills to get completely decomposed.

The rate of decomposition can depend on landfill conditions.

Let’s see how long it takes for various wastes to decompose in landfills (based on waste category) with some relevant statistics.

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 1000 years to decompose in landfills. But plastic bags we use in our everyday life take 10-1000 years to decompose, while plastic bottles can take 450 years or more.

Disposable Diapers

Just in the United States alone, every year more than 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown away. These disposable diapers take approximately 250-500 years to decompose in landfills, thus underscoring the efforts of programs offering diaper and absorbent hygiene product recycling.

Aluminum Cans

Every minute, every day, more than 120,000 aluminum cans are recycled only in America. But, at the same time, in every three-month period, enough aluminum cans are thrown away in America that can rebuild the entire American commercial air fleet. Aluminum cans take 80-200 years in landfills to get completely decomposed.  


Normally, glass is very easy to recycle mainly for the fact that glass is made of sand. 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 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. If we recycle paper items, we can easily save a lot of landfill space, while reducing the energy and virgin material requirements of making non-recycled paper.

Food Waste

By weight, food waste is the largest waste item in American landfills. The time taken for food waste decomposing depends on the type of food. Normally, an orange peel takes six months, but an apple core or a banana peel takes around one month to decompose. An important component of food recycling is to have the right container to deal with it.

The Time Taken by Other Waste Items to Decompose

Different sources have different information on the actual time various waste items take to decompose in landfills.

  • Cigarette Butts: 10-12 years
  • Monofilament Fishing Line: 600 years
  • Rubber-Boot Sole: 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 Glove: 3 months
  • Cardboard: 2 months
  • Styrofoam: Does not biodegrade
  • Nylon Fabric: 30-40 years
  • Tin can: 50 years
  • Ropes: 3-14 months
  • Waxed milk carton: 3 months
  • Aluminum cans: 200-250 years
  • Train tickets: two 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

Increasing waste volume is a major concern for mankind. 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, through a proactive design for recycling.