Have you ever considered the importance of recycling? Of course, there are the logical reasons for recycling. You don’t want the chemicals from a battery getting into the groundwater, air, or soil. Another aspect, and it’s one that most people don’t stop to think about, is how long it takes these common materials to break down.
It’s not a quick process in a landfill. To quickly decompose, there needs to be exposure to sun and moisture. In a landfill, items that are buried may not get the sun needed to quickly break down items like plastic. When you stop to think about how long it takes some items you use each day, it can be alarming.
Batteries have a plastic paper over the thin metal exterior. Even if you pull that plastic off first, a standard single-use battery can take 100 years to break down. Once it does, the heavy metals within the battery are exposed.
Cardboard and Paper
Cardboard and paper products are going to decompose within a couple of months. They’re one of the most eco-friendly items if they are thrown out. But, paper is also very easy to recycle. Save them in bags that go into your curbside recycling container. You can also shred paper and compost it in your flower garden compost.
Clothing and Textiles
If clothing is badly stained, ripped, or zippers break, you likely throw out that item. If it doesn’t fit, you might also toss it out. Clothing can take years to biodegrade in a landfill. It comes down to what it’s made of.
A cotton glove breaks down in around three months while a pair of rubber boots can take 80 years. Leather shoes take up to 40 years, but a wool sock takes less than five years. Polyester or nylon fabrics can take up to 40 years. Cotton and canvas usually break down within a year.
Clothing can be recycled. If it’s in good condition, charitable thrift shops always accept clothing. If it’s ripped or torn, you can ask locally if any quilters want it. Shops like Patagonia and H&M recycle used clothing. You can find lists of retailers that accept used clothing for recycling.
Energy-efficient light bulbs are designed not to deteriorate. They’re not going to decompose and can sit in a landfill for centuries without deteriorating, which is why it’s essential that you save them and bring them to a recycling center for electronics recycling.
You should recycle computers, cellphones, tablets, appliances, etc. correctly as they will not break down. Plus, they contain heavy metals, glass, insulation, and plastic components that aren’t going to decompose.
Some food scraps decompose within a month, but that’s not true of all food scraps. It can take a banana peel up to six months. Pineapple peel or cores can take much longer. Animal bones may not decompose for many years.
States like California and Vermont have banned food scraps from the trash. Instead, residents put their food scrap in separate bins for pick-up service, if available, or to compost in their backyards.
Glass never decomposes. It will break up into smaller granules over decades or centuries, but it’s never completely gone. As glass is made from silicon dioxide (sand particles), it will not break down. It’s always best to recycle glass as it can be melted down and turned into new glass products.
Metal items can last for decades before they deteriorate. Metal cans used for beverages or products like room fresheners or hair spray can take up to 500 years to break down. Aluminum foil and foil baking pans can take up to 400 years. The size and thickness of the metal impacts how quickly it can break down.
The good thing is that metal is easily recycled. There are people who come to homes free to pick up metal scrap to earn cash at metal scrap yards. If you don’t want to save it up and go to a scrapyard personally, ask around your community if anyone wants your metal scrap.
There are seven classifications of plastic:
- #1 – PET/PETE
- #2 – HDPE
- #3 – PVC or Vinyl
- #4 – LDPE
- #5 – PP
- #6 – PS or Styrofoam
- #7 – Bisphenol A and Other
Most towns and cities accept most of these plastics in containers, but there are always exceptions. Other plastics (#7) are hard to recycle as they’re a mix of plastics. Before you throw any plastics out, check local rules as you may be able to recycle some plastics at area facilities if you can’t put them in your bin.
How long does it take some of the most common items to decompose in a landfill? Here are some of the common plastic items.
- CDs and DVDs – Uncertain, but estimated to take around a million years
- Disposable Diapers – 500 years
- Fishing Line – 600 years
- Plastic bags – 20 years
- Plastic Bottles – 450 years
- Plastic Straws – 200 years
- Soda/Beer Can Rings – 400 years
- Styrofoam – Never completely, but smaller particles in 500 years
- Toothbrushes – 500 years
Wood and Building Supplies
What about construction and building materials? How long does it take wood to decompose? It depends on the wood. Plywood needs a few years. Pressure treated lumber may last for decades. Untreated lumber can last upwards of 15 years.
Drywall can decompose in a few months if the landfill is not well aerated and has plenty of moisture. Otherwise, it can take a full decade.
How about nails and screws and other hardware? It comes down to the size, material, and condition. It can take up to 40 years for them to break down. If you’ve ever watched a metal detecting video, you’ve likely seen the detectorist finding old nails in horseshoes, etc. They do not break down quickly.
How about some more items that you throw away all of the time and don’t stop to think about how long it’s going to take that item to decompose.
- Women’s menstrual pads can take hundreds of years, up to 800 in fact.
- Wax candles biodegrade in a few months if they’re made from soy or beeswax, but petroleum-based candles take a lot longer. Wax-coated products like wax paper or wax cups can be a little faster as they’re thinner.
- Terracotta plant pots can take hundreds of years.
- Fingernails and toenails that you trim can take upwards of 40 years to decompose in a landfill.
- Cigarette butts can take up to 12 years.
- Baby wipes or makeup remover wipes often contain some polyester, so they can take up to 100 years.
Many of these items have to go into the landfill. You can’t recycle them, but you can change your habits. If a terracotta planter is cracked or broken, you can reuse it to design stepping stones. You can melt wax candles down and create full-sized candles. Consider investing in reusable pads or period underwear instead.
Before you put something in the trash, make sure you’ve considered how long it will take that item to decompose. It’s always better to recycle, and it’s often easier to recycle than you might think. Recycle Nation can help you find a nearby recycling location by location or item type. We’re here to help you recycle responsibly and correctly.