Note From The Editor: Our original article about decomposition has been, to date, the most popular article on this website. Keeping this in mind, we decided to make a new version with even more information about the environmental impact of the items you might be throwing out.
We live in a disposable society where convenience often overrides conscientiousness. When asked about our personal habits, many people are ashamed to admit they don’t recycle. They know the detrimental impact their habits have on the planet, yet something prevents them from consciously deciding which bin to put their waste in.
The Average Household Throws Away Recyclable Goods
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s report, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: Facts and Figures 2013, Americans generated an alarming 254 million tons of trash. They recycled or composted 87 million tons of it which amounted to a meager 34.3%. Of the items thrown away by households, schools, hospitals, and businesses were plastic packaging, clothing, bottles, and newspaper which are all recyclable items.
Considering we know that glass bottles take 1-2 million years and plastic bags take 20-1,000 years to decompose, you’d think we’d be more responsible. After shedding light on our ‘trashy’ habits, we thought it’d be appropriate to take a look at some other items to see how long they’ll exist on the planet without us. You can view our original article for even more items and their lifespan.
How Long Does It Take for Trash to Decompose?
Although exact figures aren’t available, estimations as to how long trash exists offer a sobering reminder of just how consumption impacts the planet.
Here’s the lifespan of your average household waste:
- Train Tickets: 2 weeks
- Paper Towel: 2-4 weeks
- Orange Peel: 2-5 weeks
- Newspaper: 6 weeks
- Apple Core: 2 months
- Cotton Shirt: 2-5 months
- Cotton Gloves: 3 months
- Waxed Milk Cartons: 3 months
- Thread: 3-4 months
- Ropes: 3-14 months
- Canvas Products: 1 year
- Plywood: 1-3 years
- Wool Clothing: 1-5 years
- Non-Waxed Milk Cartons: 5 years
- Cigarette Butts: 10-12 years
- Lumber: 10-15 years
- Painted Board: 13 years
- Plastic Film Container: 20-30 years
- Leather Shoes: 25-40 years
- Nylon Fabric: 30-40 years
- Foamed Plastic Cups: 50 years
- Rubber Tires: 50-80 years
- Rubber Boot Soles: 50-80 years
- Foamed Plastic Buoys: 80 years
- Batteries: 100 years
- Hairspray Bottle: 200-500 years
- Plastic Beverage Holders (Six Pack Rings): 400 years
- Plastic Beverage Bottles: 450 years
- Engine Blocks: 500 years
- Sanitary Pads: 500-800 years
- Monofilament Fishing Line: 600 years
- Polyurethane Seat Cushions: 1,000 years
- Automobile Windshield: One million years or longer
- Tinfoil: It does not biodegrade.
Toxic e-waste materials such as barium cause brain damage as well as heart, liver, lung, and spleen damage. Nickel and silver cause a range of medical problems including birth defects, brain damage, heart, liver, lung and spleen damage, and nervous and reproductive system damage. Cadmium causes everything but brain damage and causes harm to the skeletal system.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Compost
Mother Earth News offers 100 suggestions on reusing commonly thrown away items. Although written in the 1970s, the original article remains relevant. Tinned steel cans take 50 years to compose so it only makes sense to spray paint them and use them as herb planters or as a way to hold office supplies. A cheap alternative to store-bought containers, preparing them for use takes little time and effort.
Other suggestions include saving spice bottles for sprinkling spring seeds into planters and the ground, suitcases turned hip side tables or chairs, and leftover brewed tea for cleaning wood as well as dying paper and linens. Entire websites devoted to repurposing trash exist to spark creativity and encourage resourcefulness. Upcycling is the process of converting old or discarded materials and creating new useful things out of them.
The blog, Upcycle That, offers a range of upcycling ideas and inspiration. Among them is a window turned coffee table and a wooden pallet turned vertical planter. Other places to find upcycled projects is Pinterest as well as Etsy, where handmade artists sell goods and share ideas with one another.
A list of compostable items from the kitchen includes fruit and vegetable scraps, crushed egg shells, loose leaf tea, and nut shells. Other household waste great for composting includes dryer lint, shredded toilet paper rolls, junk mail and even discarded dry dog or cat food. A word of advice, however, is to never put meat scraps, glossy paper or sawdust from treated wood in your compost pile. It contains arsenic and cadmium, two things that are toxic and should not be consumed!
Before you scrap your cell phone, an old computer or disabled appliance, see what it takes to give it a new lease on life. San Francisco Bay Area e-waste collection center Green Citizen puts up to 30 broken cell phones back into its customers’ hands daily. Refurbishing and reselling donated items keeps them out of the landfill and their poisonous substances such as nickel, cadmium, mercury, and lead out of the soil and your food and water.
Making Better Decisions
Our habits needn’t be detrimental to the planet. By making better choices with the purchases we make, we not only stay true to our values, we protect the environment for future generations. After all, swapping out plastic for refillable water bottles takes very little time and money. Choosing products that are eco-friendly and decompose quickly is ideal for every household. When the landfills are at maximum capacity, we may be forced to bury our trash in our own backyards and no one wants to do that!
By consciously choosing products with less negative environmental impact, we force manufacturers to think twice about the type of materials they use and the limited recycling programs they offer. Before you throw something away, try to find at least one more use for it. Write on the back of junk mail envelopes, turn that butter dish into a storage container for leftovers, and give old furniture a facelift with paint.
It’s far easier to be resourceful than it is to deal with the alternative. A planet full of trash that decomposes slowly isn’t good for anyone. It’s certainly something future generations of people want nothing to do with. Imagine being known as the ‘disposable society’ by your ancestors. It’s not a title to be proud of, is it?