When we throw something away, it’s likely that the discarded item ceases to exist in our minds. However, the item’s journey to decomposition has just begun.
While decomposition rates can vary depending on conditions, knowing how long everyday items take to decompose in a world overflowing with trash is essential for protecting future generations.
Disposable Diapers – 500 Years
The average baby goes through around 10,000 disposable diapers before being potty-trained. Disposable diapers are the third most common item found in landfills and represent 30% of all non-biodegradable waste.
Plastic Bottle Caps – 10 to 500 Years
You previously had to separate bottle caps and plastic bottles before recycling, as they were made from two different types of plastic. Nowadays, however, you can leave bottle caps on for recycling. Bottle caps are made of high-density polypropylene and polyethylene, which we can now recycle.
Plastic Bags – 10 to 1,000 Years
In recent years, consumers have become more aware of the environmental hazard plastic bags pose, but they are still one of the most common pollutants. Although some bags can break down in as little as a decade, others can endure for up to 1,000 years.
Glass – Over 1 Million Years
Although glass breaks easily, it is one of the most durable materials on Earth in terms of decomposition. Glass relics from 2000 B.C. Egypt still exists today, and experts theorize that a glass bottle can take up to one million years to decompose fully.
Cardboard – 2 Months
While you can recycle cardboard, it has many other uses. You can use cardboard as garden mulch or creatively repurpose it as a crafty DIY for pet bedding or other crafty items. Compared to the other items on this list, cardboard breaks down quickly when exposed to the elements, but if it’s tightly packed, it can endure for years.
Waxed Cartons – 3 Months
Recycling plants can’t take waxed cartons; that’s why you can find millions of these waxed cardboard packaging in landfills. Waxed cartons have a low packaging-to-product ratio and usually hold milk and other liquids.
Cigarette Butts – 20 Months to 10 Years
Cigarette butts are probably the most common litter on Earth; around 5 trillion cigarettes are consumed yearly, most of which end up dropped on the street or flicked out car windows, where they wash into drains and eventually into the ocean. Most cigarette filters contain cellulose acetate, a slow degrading plastic, which makes its degradation timeline so vast.
Foamed Plastic Containers – 50 Years
Foam plastic containers decompose more quickly than most plastic containers. Even so, you can expect these foam containers to last a half-century before breaking down.
Batteries – 100 Years
Household alkaline batteries are safe to dispose of at home. However, due to their decomposition process, you must dispose of cars, rechargeable, and other industrial batteries according to federal guidelines.
Aluminum Cans – 80 to 100 Years
Aluminum cans start to break down after 80 years and will only fully decompose and disintegrate after several centuries. Unlike other materials, you can infinitely recycle aluminum, making it one of the most repurposed recyclables.
Plastic Straws – 200 Years
Plastic straws rarely make it into recycling bins, so they have always been a top target for environmentalists to tackle to reduce waste. Humans use millions of plastic straws daily, most of which remain on Earth for two centuries after we toss them.
Plastic Bottles – 450 Years
While plastic pollution is a global problem, the U.S. alone tosses over 60 million plastic bottles instead of recycling them. These bottles wind up in streets, parks, landfills, incinerators, oceans, and other public spaces. Plastic bottles take centuries to decompose, which is why it is crucial to recycle them.
This originally appeared on Planet Natural.
Melissa Pino is a biologist, master gardener, and regular contributor for Planet Natural. Melissa's work focuses on promoting environmentally-friendly practices, helping people create healthy gardens and finding ways to achieve overall health and wellness.