How Long Does It Take To Decompose?

Garbage dump on green meadow
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Note From The Editor: This article has been so popular over the years that we have decided to make a part 2. To dive even deeper into this topic, be sure to check out “How Long Does It Take To Decompose – Part 2“.

Today I feel like posting some interesting facts about some of the most common products we use on a daily basis. Since this is Green Week (at least according to NBC), I would like to add some good-to-know info into the mix. I know that in these days, all we hear is recycle this or reuse that, but it all comes at us for a reason. We’re finally realizing that we can make a difference for the future of our Earth, so why not act upon it? Many times we can become blinded from the endless amounts of statistics and numbers being introduced, but maybe this list can help us understand how important it is to watch what we do with these essential daily items. Check out how long each of these products take to decompose in the environment…

  • Banana Peel: 3-4 weeks
  • Paper Bag: 1 month
  • Cardboard: 2 months
  • Wool Sock: 1 year
  • Tinned Steel Can: 50 years
  • Aluminum Can: 200-500 years (But if recycled, it can be reused within 6 weeks!)
  • Disposable Diapers: 550 years
  • Plastic Bags: 20-1000 years
  • Plastic Jug: 1 million years
  • Glass: 1-2 million years
  • Styrofoam: 1+ million years

This list might put some of the Green supporters’ words into perspective for a lot of people. It sure opened my eyes when I did a little research to see what the highest concerns were with today’s products. Just make sure you care as much about the container as you do about the healthy food within it. Without a productive, prospering Earth, there cannot be a way to keep ourselves in healthy condition.

Click here to read the second part to this article.

Sources include QLPA, No More Trash! & ABC.
(Some Links No Longer Exist)

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  • You are probably going to hate me for this, but why does the length of decomposition matter as long as the waste is confined to land fills?

    In addition, claiming that styrofoam will last an eternity is simply ludicrous. Even continents erode. So will your styrofoam. If nothing else, continental drift will eventually cause your styrofoam to get subducted into the earth’s mantle and get burned… of course, this is all academic and is a largely useless discussion.

    As long is waste is confined to specific land fills, there really is no issue.

  • shadox, I think the point of the decomposition time is that if things don’t decompose in a resonable time, then the number and size of landfills keeps growing…Before you know it, you’ll be living on top of old landfills with styrofoam cups in your front yard.

    Great post! I found it from a link on BripBlap’s page. This will make me more aware of what I put in the garbage…and I will make sure that the aluminum and glass containers that I use go into the recycling!

  • shadox, don’t worry, I don’t hate you for your comment. I see your point because that has been a popular belief, but I believe that way of thinking is very ignorant. As SavingDiva said, landfills only last for so long, and when they are filled, they are only covered with dirt and left until someone wants to build on it. This was a big concern in my hometown, San Diego, at one time. These landfills are in no way airtight, so there’s no question it would spread to the rest of our environment. Any measure we can take to keep the world as clean as possible is a step in the right direction.

    Thanks to both of you guys for commenting. It’s really fun to get some discussion going on in here.

  • Alana

    Great post Joe. It really makes me want to petition my condo association to get recycle containers/dumpsters. I believe that in San Diego by a certain year the city is required to provide recycling containers? Maybe you can enlighten me….now I feel like a horrible person! But at least I reuse the plastic grocery bags for dog mess. :)

  • Hey Alana, that is pretty nuts that your condos don’t offer any kind of recycling. I haven’t heard of a law coming around that would require it, but it sure doesn’t look like it would be unrealistic!

    Maybe if you go around getting people to sign petitions you’ll be able to sneek an autograph from Cooper! =D

  • Pamela

    According to the National Parks Association it only takes 10-20 years for a diaper to decompose.

  • unknown

    How did you find all this out? But pretty kewl and nice for my science project

  • Oh, wow that really makes you think bout what u could do so that earth dosnt turn into one big trash can! i think ill recycle more now!

  • Krystle

    Pamela, you wrote: “According to the National Parks Association it only takes 10-20 years for a diaper to decompose.”
    I wasn’t able to find that statistic anywhere. Can you post the link?

    Also, Joe, are you able to source this information? I’m doing a presentation on Thursday and would like to use this but need to know where you got it from.

    Any help is appreciated.

    Thanks!

  • Hi Krystle.

    It has been a very long time since I’ve written this article, so I cannot remember where I found this statistic. I would check this website out: http://www.thatdanny.com/2008/06/06/how-long-does-it-take-a-plastic-bag-or-a-glass-bottle-to-decompose/

    It has some interesting facts with sources on there, as well.

  • funda

    wat happens(hazards to environment and humans) wen plastic bags are burnt?

  • Jessie

    Im currently doing my first year of a fine arts degree and next week we are doing an instalation workshop, so i decided to do somthing that involved waste, thats how i came across this page, im disgusted at how long a plastic bag will take to decompose. So for my instalation piece im creating a work of art which adresses this issue, inside a glass box im going to have a layer of plastic bags, then dirt and repeat this for disposable nappies, tinned cans, cotton rags, paper bags and a banana peel and out of the top im going to plant a tree and let it grow on waste like society does.

  • That’s a really interesting project, Jessie. It sounds like a great idea, and, I’m sure, also visually disturbing. Be sure to tell me how it goes!

  • How long would you estimate it takes rubber to biodegrade (natural or synthetic)? What about polyester? When you know, please don’t hesistate to e-mail me with the info.

    Thanks.

    From H.M.F.

    :10/21/2008:

  • ed austin

    I am helping a friend do research for a presentation and have three questions for you:

    1. You state plastic bags take 1,000,000 years to degrade, and I don’t doubt that may be true, Wikipedia states it only takes 10 to 20 years for them to degrade, presumably in a landfill. Is your basis for saying it takes that long because you are referring to decomposing in the environment, as opposed to in a landfill, and do you think they’ll decompose in a landfill that quickly?

    2. Can you tell me how long any other things take to decompose, especially in the environment, or a landfill?

    3. Can you provide me with any research or links to it that may be helpful to my friend?

    Thanks for any help you can offer.. and for the good work you are doing to help make the world a better place for us all, especially for the generations to come!!!!!

  • Ash

    ed austin,
    I would just like you to note that Wikipedia is not a very accurate source and that you and your friend should try using peer- reviewed journals with references preferably through university libraries. In fact, anything that is on Wikipedia can be changed by anyone and should never be used in any sort of academic paper.

    Mr. Fier,
    I am doing a paper on the life cycle of wool products (mine being a Pendleton Wool blanket) would the one-year decomposition apply for a blanket as well? Do you have any other information on the specifics of decomposition? Anything at a more specific level would help me. Thanks!

  • anonymous

    thanks so much for this!
    it really helped with my science fair project!

    btw, do you have any sources where you got this info? if you do, i could really use them

  • Joe, much of the information you have supplied is supported and validated by researchers, particularly Dr. William Rathje @ The University of Arizona. Much of your data is supported and can be read at http://www.nevadarecycles.gov/doc/curriculum/lesson%204%20master.pdf, which is also a great teaching tool. Hope this helps. Recyling is only part of the solution, but one of the easiest steps to take. Even a 3-year-old can recycle something.

  • Phillip

    I totaly agree with you dude!

  • Alicia

    Finnally!Someone really knows the facts!People say it take 450 years for a plastic jug to decompose.Boy are they wrong!You rock!!!

  • Mullanaphy!

    Yup, they’re wrong. Plastic can decompose in as little as 3 months with the right bacteria added. Styrofoam can be converted into biodegradable plastic under the same principle.

    As for Wikipedia, the facts there compared to other encyclopias are considered well within the margin of error. However, Wikipedia should only be a starting point for research, not a considerable part of your reasearch.

    Think we would all agree on this, we should do a lot more to utilize our waste.

  • Ryan

    I don’t know about completely decomposing but this morning I found an old plastic bag sitting on a shelf in my room. When I went to pick it up it literally fell apart in my hand, it was like picking up fish food. It couldn’t have been sitting there for more than a couple months, how is it possible for plastic to become that brittle in that little time?

  • Jessica

    You said that the plastic bag disintegrated in your hand? Wow! I’ve never herd of something like that before. What I can suggest is to look around at what surounded the bag, were there any toxins? It may have also been humid or hot at the top of the shelf, providing the perfect environment for bacteia to grow. If none of these aplly to the environment in your room, than it may have been sretched out too much making it easier for bacteria to grow.

  • Jessica

    Funda, in responce to your post, when a plastic bag is burnt it releases toxic fumes that can be fatal or cause lasting (severe) damage to the brain. I know this because some guys in my science class decided to burn their pens to see what would happen. Apart from being expelled, one of them is still in hospital recovering but has been told that he will never acheve his full potential.
    Every one at our school knows about it but it hasn’t stopped kids from doing it.
    Hope this helps.

  • william

    can you believe how long some of thiese things take to decompose! Geese! No wonder globel warning is happening.

  • Mitch

    You know, apple cores and banana peels, along with other foods, sit above land, so don’t decompose nearly as fast as they do in the ground. In Virginia Beach, we have Mt. Trashmore, which is a huge covered up landfill. And by decomposing anything that takes less than a year in your backyard, and all metals plastic, glass, and styrofoam in a recycleing bin, we can really stop landfills and methane gas, which is 20% of global warming. We can really help stop this. I bury just about everything I can. It doesn’t take long to decompose, so I’m not filling it up completely, but I’m lessening my trash amount and just go back to fill more stuff in my backyard. It disapeers quickly, so who cares what I do.

  • Cami

    Ryan, your plastic bag is photodegrading, which is what happens to plastic exposed to the elements. It’s not breaking down into organic matter, its just breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces. The light makes it brittle like that.

  • If you don’t recycle you will help kill the Artic Animals.

  • Janet Lugo

    Thank you, I will use the information in my Going Green Class at St. Stan’s this year.

  • Hannah

    Well, i need to know how long it takes for viscose, acrylic and lycra to break down. Other than that GREAT information, any ideas where i could find out how long it takes for them to break down?

    Thanks :) X

  • Christian Chidi Mgbeahuru

    Thanks you for listing the answers acordingly of how long it takes some of the synthetic or boidegradable products to decompose….I m involved in an arguement sometime ago and I support the fact that synthetic element decays but will take longer time. Thank you once again for helping me prove my point.

  • There is no use of thinking and start sobering for what you did yesterday. So we better think an alternative that makes these things degrade little quicker. If we still continue using them, definitely one day or the other, the entire earth will be filled with the garbage. So please friends, any ideas must come out. And me, already started thinking of it. There are many experts who can do this. So please meet them, talk about it, find a solution and publish in the website, that will be very helpful to the future generations

  • Olde E

    I doubt that a plastic jug takes a million years to decompose. there is no way we can scientifically prove that.

  • thats bad

    it takes over 500 years for a trash bag to disintegrate

  • Skyler

    This was very helpful for my science project and also very interesting.
    Thank You

  • Abbe

    This was an awesome article it made me think about how much I throw away every day that could be recycled. Thank you for this article!

  • Millie:D

    Thanks sooo much for this post! I have two younger siblings and now I know how long there diapers are going to be in the landfills for! it scares me to find this info out, but is still interesting!

  • CL

    styrafoam doesnt decompose at all. i know because teachers have told me in the past while i cleaned up the beach

  • quenitsami

    i am a 15 year old cherokee boy and i think all of this is not going to stop till all people stop using trees, litering, burning trash, throwing away usefull parts of animals, killing them for fun and games, and STOP INDUSTRY. WHAT HAPPENED TO LIVING OFF THE LAND my people lived on this soil sinse before anybody even knew we existed and if industrialization never took plase than fighting, war, and desease would have never took place because we wouldent have things to fight about. think from a native americans perspective before you act this was our home first mabey you can try to respect it. we dont track mud on your floors and we dont throw our trash in your yard so dont do it to ours because even if we stop pollution now my great great great grand children still wont see a clean earth or even a clean puddle of water. respect mother earth for what she is not what you can get out of her. thank you

  • kia

    hey girl i just love love the website it helps me analyze how important it is to live your life recycyling trust you dont know in how deep of deppression i was until i started recycling it has gave me a true meaning in life i just love this website and i hope everybody will follow my recomandations of recycling

  • lizzy

    omg thank you u helped me cheat on my bioligy semester exam:)
    BUAHAHAHAHAAHA>;}

  • Wow

    LOL hey if your a native american arnt you doing the same with you computer and your electricity?!?!

  • De’Andre Mack

    Ok So the Boy is native American And hes Talking About How His People lived On this Land And All This Crap But Yet i Bet he has A cell Phone,Some Type if game System And He Had To Be On A Computer To Write This So Whyy Didmt he just Stay Off The Computer And “Help the Enviorment”

  • Wayne Allen

    @quenitsami:

    Yeah… different tribes never fought one another. It’s all the white man’s fault.

    And seriously… what is wrong with cutting down trees? So long as they are replanted at an equal or greater rate, it’s the best renewable resource out there! Most tree based products decompose in a very reasonable timeframe, and much of it can be recycled into lower quality paper goods like toilet paper.

    I fail to see where there is a problem cutting trees, and to assume native americans never had any violent quarrels is ignorant. All races on this planet have had violent quarrels at one point or another. Native Americans are no different.

  • megan

    hey how about you all shut the fuck up and get off the native american kid’s back you assholes. he’s just saying something nice to help the environment. and you mister wayne allen with the white man’s fault???? where the fuck did that even come from

  • wayne allen

    When you talk about your own race as being superior to others, you can’t expect people to just sit by quietly. If I say something like he did, I am a racist asshole. If he does it he is just being proud and should be left alone. I don’t care what color you are. If you imply your race is better than another, you are an asshole. It’s that simple.

    I am all for racial, sexual, and gender equality. But equality means treated the same. It does not mean to give special treatment because their people were screwed in the past. I treat everyone equally. If you are going to make blanket statements about groups of people, I am going to call you on it.

    Equality… that is what I give to everyone, like it or not.

  • constantly

    a good deal addiitional info with this kind of issue online on a website, observe.

  • Mario-man4567

    Diapers only take 450 years

  • jr

    Ok to the guy that said that diapers only take 450 years tho its not as much as posted in previous statements its still a pretty damn long time i think we all can agree so however long it does take is too damn long so what the **** does it really matter either way they all arent decomposing as rapidly as we need them too to make a difference i think is what the bigger pic is about which is the reason why this site was set into motion and about the natives and whites lets b real race has nothing to do with anything because as allot of u have displayed ignorance comes in in many colors races sex’s etc i think allot of u asses have gotten sidetracked i for one believe we are all going to get what we deserve in the end both to those who r good and evil evil being translated meaning unclean unclean in our thoughts actions and of course as we have seen…. statements all have sinned and fallen short of GOD’s glory let he who is without sin cast the first stone. if u care act dont just talk about it for those who love to talk and not act please try to avoid bad mouthing those who r acting on it…for crying outloud u dont wanna help and dont wanna let others help which means your only in the way….

  • Craig

    Try up to 2 years for banana skins, not 3-4 weeks, they are gonna be visible for a long, long time.

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