When we throw something in the garbage, it might appear that its story has reached its conclusion. However, it starts an item’s journey to basic breakdown or decomposition.
For example, leftover salad can return to the Earth in a matter of days, but the plastic in which the salad was packed can stay for thousands of years.
Decomposition rates vary dramatically based on factors like temperature, moisture, exposure to sunlight and the elements, the presence or lack of microorganisms, and whether the object is buried or exposed.
In addition, some items, like plastic bottles made differently from multiple quantities of dissimilar materials, are likely to have varied decomposition rates.
Therefore, while dumping the trash into the bin, knowing how long it will hang around is essential. Let’s talk about 60 everyday items and their decomposition facts.
How Long Does It Take to Decompose?
Here are some of the commonly disposed items and the number of years they take to break down.
1. Plastic: 20 to 500 years
Plastic can decompose from 20 to 500 years, depending on the material’s structure and environmental factors, such as sunlight exposure. Usually, single-use items are made of plastic. Some plastics are reusable or recyclable, but packaging and thicker plastic items are not and are mostly thrown in the bin.
2. Plastic Bags: 10–1,000 years
Plastic bags are usually made of any one of three materials:
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
- Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE)
They take at least a decade to break down, whereas commonly discarded thin plastic bags can take as long as 1,000 years. However, in recent years, consumers have become more aware of the environmental hazards posed by plastic bags.
3. Bones: 10-1000 years
The skeletal elements’ destruction stages begin at about 9 months of exposure; decomposing takes 10 to 1000 years. The decomposition of bones is greatly affected by the location of the body, seasonal weather, and accessibility of the soft tissues.
In addition, carnivores, other scavengers, and insect activity, including that of maggot and beetle varieties, are contributing factors, as is clothing or covering of the body, substrate, elevation, and latitude.
4. Gum: 50-1000 years
The complete decomposition of chewing gum can take 500 to 1,000 years. It has been established that chewing gum doesn’t decompose. Bacteria and living organisms cannot break down these materials, but the sheer brute force and UV light from the sun disintegrate them over several years into microplastic fragments. Scientists are experimenting with recycling solutions to give chewing gum a new life.
5. Paper: 2 to 6 weeks
The decomposition of paper takes 2 to 6 weeks. However, it’s one of the highly recyclable everyday household materials, meaning it’s often turned into a new product.
Even more, this material can be recycled up to 6 times before the fibers become too weak to be reused. So, on balance, recycling paper is still much better than producing it from fresh pulp.
6. Styrofoam: Never
Styrofoam is made using fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals, making it efficient and inexpensive. But did you know that this material is non-biodegradable? That’s right! As such, it never decomposes.
With this awareness, it’s disheartening that 3 million tons, if not more, of polystyrene products are produced in the U.S. annually. A significant portion of these items are single-use and disposable. Every year, Americans discard 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups, which, if placed end to end, would encircle the Earth 436 times.
7. Leaves: 3-6 months
The time required to decompose leaves can vary based on factors such as air/oxygen, moisture, type of leaves, and green/brown leaves ratio. For example, it usually takes 3-6 months for leaves to decompose in a compost bin.
But it takes about one year or longer if you dump them somewhere on a pile without turning them over or creating a moist environment.
8. Cigarette: 18 months to 10 years
Smokers consume about 5.5 trillion cigarettes yearly, making it one of the most common litter on the planet that eventually reaches the ocean or other waterways.
Unfortunately, it takes 18 months to 10 years to decompose. In addition, cigarette filters contain slowly degrading plastic cellulose acetate, and butts represent a third of all trash in America, flooding America’s beaches.
9. Glass: Over 1 million years
It breaks quickly, but it’s actually one of the most durable materials on Earth, at least when it comes to decomposition.
Artifacts from the earliest days of glass-making in 2000 B.C. Egypt still exists, which means that a glass bottle would take 1 million years or more to fully decompose on its own.
But like paper, it can be recycled, although the procedure is very sophisticated.
10. Diaper: 500 years
Disposable diapers are the third most common consumer item in landfills that take up to 500 years to degrade, creating methane and other toxic gasses.
In addition, their manufacturing uses volatile chemicals in the ecosystem, representing 30% of all non-biodegradable waste.
11. Dog Poop: A year
Dog waste can fully decompose, taking almost a year and leaving your lawn brown and patchy. Dog poop is not a fertilizer like cow manure, and that’s because dogs eat a high protein-based diet that creates very acidic excrement or waste.
As a result, dogs are a very significant host of bacteria. One gram of dog waste can contain 23 million harmful fecal coliform bacteria, which can contaminate our waterways and cause human illnesses.
12. Banana Peel: Up to 2 years
Billions of bananas are consumed yearly, and their peels don’t decompose for several months. Therefore, banana peels are perfect for composting or tossing in the garden.
If the conditions are ideal, composting banana peels should take about 3 to 4 weeks. However, a banana peel could take up to two years to decompose in a natural environment. That isn’t as short as paper, but the decomposition is much more rapid than materials like plastic or glass.
13. Plastic Bottle: 450 years
Pollution from plastic bottles is a global problem. In the United States alone, more than 60 million bottles are thrown away daily instead of being recycled.
These plastics eventually wind up in landfills, incinerators, oceans, parks, streets, and other public spaces. Even worse, they require hundreds of years to decompose, providing them with ample time to do more damage to the ecosystem.
14. Cardboard: 2-3 months
Cardboard can be composted, used as garden mulch, or repurposed creatively as craft material or pet bedding besides recycling. It breaks down quickly when exposed, but tightly packed cardboard can endure for years.
However, when a piece of cardboard is used as mulch or specifically shredded and soaked to decompose, biodegradation occurs quickly, with the majority of cardboard wholly broken down within three months.
15. Hair: Between 1 and 2 years
These facts go for human hair. Human hair takes one to two years to break down in the soil. Specific environments, microbial life, internment methods, and soil conditions can all expedite decomposition.
Where the conditions for its decomposition aren’t favorable, hair will take about 10 years to decompose fully. Nevertheless, the evidence of hair on human remains was found when professionally excavated approximately after 100 years of burial.
16. Mouse: About 2 weeks.
A dead mouse could take about 2 weeks to decompose in ideal conditions. However, the length of time for the rodent to decompose depends on many factors, including the size of the rodent, temperature, humidity, and accessibility to decomposers like flies. A full breakdown will take three weeks or more.
17. Cat: 1-3 years
The decomposition of the animal body depends on several factors. The size of the animal body, the location of the cat’s body, and the surrounding environmental temperature are significant among them.
Depending on these variables, a body’s decomposition may take weeks or years. For example, it usually takes 1-3 years to decompose a cat’s body if it is buried. However, it could take decades in freezing climates and a few months in a natural or mild environment.
18. Dog: Average of 6 months to 18 years
It takes an average of 6 months to 18 years for a buried dog to decompose fully. If a dog is exposed and not buried, it will decompose much more quickly, around 3 – 6 months. The speed at which a dog decays depends on how deep you buried him, the climate, and whether his body is enclosed or exposed.
19. Aluminium: 80–100 years
Aluminum starts to break down only after 80 to 100 years and fully decomposes after several centuries. Therefore, unlike many other materials, aluminum can be recycled unlimited times, making it one of the most critical and widely repurposed recyclables, such as aluminum foil. Complete decomposition is impossible for these thin, foldable, metallic sheets.
20. Metal: 50 to 200 years
Metal or stainless steel packaging is much more environmentally friendly than plastic. Metal possesses the remarkable ability to be recycled endlessly, and repurposing it at home is also quite straightforward. Recycling facilities melt down the metal, transforming it back into a pure raw material, which can be used anew.
They could be placed in landfills only when items aren’t properly recycled. Steel takes approximately 50 years to decompose, while aluminum can last up to 200 years.
21. Disposable Mask: Up to 450 years
Disposable face masks take up to 450 years to decompose in the environment. But, with the COVID-19 crisis, more and more face masks are ending up in the streets or the sea, carried away by the wind and waterways. Yet, the small plastic fragments are still not completely eliminated even after this period.
22. Grass Clippings: 3–4 weeks
After mowing your lawn, grass clippings will decompose in 3–4 weeks on average. However, within 1–2 weeks, they will often no longer be visible because they will reach the soil level and begin to break down. When grass clippings are added to compost, they break down entirely in 1–3 months.
23. Plastic Straws: 200 Years
Recently, plastic straws drew the attention of environmentalists hoping to reduce plastic waste. Unfortunately, plastic straws can take up to 200 years to decompose, gradually disintegrating into smaller and smaller particles, known as microplastics, up to 200 years. As a result, Americans use millions of straws daily, which can remain on the Earth for two centuries after being tossed in the garbage.
24. Orange Peel: 6 Months
Fruits, particularly highly acidic ones, can take longer than vegetables to break down. Self-contained and easy to eat on the go, oranges account for more scrap waste than most fruits, and they also take longer to decompose, depending on the environment. For example, it can take an orange peel up to six months to decompose.
25. Bird: 3 Weeks to Several Years
Dead birds can decompose within two or three days because of flies and other factors like insects, bacteria, and animals including rats, foxes, and carrion-eating birds that help get rid of the body of the deceased bird after it has died.
Decomposition can take anywhere from three weeks to several years in a temperate climate, depending on certain factors such as temperature, humidity, presence of insects, and others.
26. Deer: 6 Months
Scavengers play a vital role in the decomposition of deer. A carcass of deer may take around six months to completely decompose to bones if left to decay without interference from scavengers. Scavengers help eat the flesh from the bones and scatter the pieces, exposing them to other agents of decomposition.
27. Apple: 8 weeks
The time these fruits take to decompose is longer than you might think. However, they remain intact longer than denser fruits and vegetables with higher water content. Once tossed into the garbage, an apple core takes about eight weeks to biodegrade.
28. Trash: 2-6 weeks
Typically, it takes two to six weeks to decompose entirely in a landfill, but it can take decades, depending on moisture levels within the landfill. The smaller pieces in the trash take less time to break down. For example, it can take 6 months to 1 year for tree leaves to fully decompose, while grass clippings only take a couple of weeks.
29. Water Bottle: 450 Years
Traditional plastic bottles are made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a lightweight and flexible material that doesn’t decompose quickly, mainly because bacteria cannot consume and break down the chemicals used in PET.
As a result, plastic erodes into smaller, often undetectable nanoplastics, making their way into our ecosystem for at least 450 years. It stays basically everywhere, be it in remote areas of the Arctic Ocean and even within the placentas of unborn babies.
30. Newspaper: 2-6 weeks
Newspaper takes approximately 2-6 weeks to decompose in a landfill. Different environmental conditions play a role in the rate at which paper decomposes.
For example, paper in a regularly turned compost heap with good exposure to oxygen will decompose far quicker than paper buried in an anaerobic landfill with little to no oxygen.
31. Squirrel: 2 Weeks
Dead squirrels decompose in two weeks. When a squirrel dies, it’s essential to dispose of it correctly. If buried in the ground, a dead squirrel will take about two weeks to decompose.
While the decomposition process of a dead squirrel is not quick, it is vital to remove the body and never touch it until it is completely decomposed.
32. Cotton: 6 Months
Cotton is one of the most common materials in the so-called fashion waste. It accumulates when people throw old clothes away instead of donating them, swapping them, or recycling them. Ordinary cotton clothes can decompose in six months.
33. Paper Towel: 2–4 Weeks
In the U.S., more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are disposed of yearly. Even more shocking, it requires around 51,000 trees to replace the number of paper towels Americans burn daily.
But disposed, paper towel takes 2–4 weeks to biodegrade. They are convenient, but switching to reusable cloth wipes and replacing single-use items is key to a sustainable kitchen (and it saves you money!).
34. Toilet Paper: 1-3 Years
Think how often septic systems get blocked up due to toilet tissue. Toilet paper decomposes quickly but not as quickly and efficiently as you think. In fact, it could take one to three years to decompose in the wrong conditions fully. The speed of the process depends on varying factors like the thickness of the tissue, the quantity of water available, and the weather conditions it’s exposed to.
35. Tree Roots: 3-7 Years
The time taken by tree roots for decomposition, which is 3-7 years, will depend on your location, environment, climate, and type of tree. Generally, the lower the stump is cut, the quicker it rots.
36. Wood Chips: 1-3 Years
The natural decomposition of wood is an integral part of the carbon cycle of nature. However, wood fibers, such as cardboard, paper, and plywood products, don’t break down naturally.
For example, most affordable furniture plywood takes around 1-3 years, and a sturdier type, lumber, used for structural purposes, takes about 10-15 years to decompose. Nonetheless, the glue and chemicals used in the product slow down the decomposition rate.
37. Oil: 1-30 Years
As per previous studies, small droplets of oil decay within a year of washing ashore, and is broken down by sand-dwelling microbes, primarily bacteria and fungi. Bacteria can break down oil into carbon dioxide and water.
But the new study found that larger clumps of oil, golf ball-sized found along Gulf Coast beaches, take roughly three decades to decompose entirely.
38: Sunflower Seed Shells: About 3 Years
Seed shells are wholly biodegradable but will still take a while to decompose fully. If you use sunflower seeds with shells, you should know that sunflower seeds, in actuality, the entire plant contain chemicals that inhibit the growth of other sensitive plants. Therefore, it takes about three years for sunflower seed shells to decompose. Thinner seed shells, like sunflower shells, take a little less time.
39. Acorns: 6 Months – Few Years
It can take months and even years for the tough outer shell of the acorn to break down naturally. You need to crack the nut first to enable faster decomposition.
While using acorns as compost, you must break down the shells first. They add an essential ingredient, protein or brown compost layers, to the complete compost mix.
40. Aeration Plugs: 2-6 Weeks
It takes approximately one to two weeks for the plugs to break down. Rainfall or watering the lawn helps the plugs break down fast. Another trick is to mow the grass.
Soil plugs from aeration will take 2–6 weeks to break down. Aeration plugs are not trash but are loaded with helpful soil microbes and fertilizer that slowly give nutrients back to your yard. Allow them to degrade on their own.
41. Human Remains: Three Weeks to Years
The decomposition begins immediately upon death; after twelve hours, the internal tissues start to decay. However, complete disintegration of the body can vary and take weeks if buried at sea to hundreds of years if buried in ice.
Three weeks to several years are required for a body to completely decompose into a skeleton, depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, presence of insects, and submergence in a substrate such as water.
42. Polyester: 500+ Years
CO states, “As an oil-based plastic, polyester does not biodegrade like natural fibers. Rather it stays in a landfill for several decades at least – and potentially for hundreds of years.”
Synthetic fibers take a lot longer since they are predominantly made from plastics. For example, nylon fabric takes 30 to 40 years, whereas lycra and polyester will take 500+ years to decompose.
43. Raccoon: Few Weeks
Small animals like raccoons take over a week to fully decompose. Therefore, it is recommended that the dead animal be covered with lime or similar material before being covered with soil, which will aid in decomposition and reduce the potential for odors.
44. Pumpkin: 8-12 Weeks
Pumpkins can be of massive size. Pumpkins should be cut into small pieces to make them break down quickly. The pieces require about 8-12 weeks for a complete breakdown. Before composting pumpkins, you should know how to optimize them for the compost bin.
45. Possum: 6 Months to 18 Years
Possums are about the size of small dogs. These animals, when dead, may take three weeks or more to decompose completely. However, depending on several factors, the carcass to fully undergo the decomposition process can take an average of 6 months to 18 years.
46. Hamster: 8-12 Years
After death, if a hamster is typically placed 6ft down, without a coffin, in ordinary soil, it takes 2 weeks to years to decompose into a skeleton completely. Decomposing a corpse is a continual process that can take weeks to years, depending on the environment.
47. Toothbrush: Up to 1000 years
Plastic toothbrushes made from polypropylene plastic and nylon may take about 1000 years to decompose in the marine environment or a landfill. That’s to say, you can also find the first toothbrush ever made somewhere!
Each year, 3.5 billion toothbrushes are sold worldwide. Unfortunately, most get lost in the recycling process and end up in landfills or make their way into rivers and oceans.
48. Mouse Droppings: A Week or Two
A mouse can leave 70 droppings daily in many places, a few at once. Droppings as fresh as 48 to 72 hours will look faded and old, and degradation takes a week or two.
Mouse feces can contain various diseases, such as Rickettsia, hantavirus, leptospirosis, and salmonellosis. While direct contact with the droppings is dangerous, the stool will also dry out and disintegrate over time, becoming airborne.
49. Pads: Over 25 Years
Sanitary pads take more than 25 years to decompose. In a year, about 7 billion tampons and 12 billion sanitary pads are thrown away in the United States, most of which contain plastic in the lining or the applicator.
The cotton portion decomposes quickly, but the low-density polyethylene plastic takes decades to break down. Therefore, it’s better not to flush plastic applicators, as they can end up in the ocean.
50. Pine Needles: 4 Months
Pine needles can take incredibly long before fully decomposing because of the waxy coating that delays the decaying. The pine needles composting process usually takes not more than 4 months to break down.
These can be broadly divided into Green feedstocks and Browns. The former has a good moisture content, is quick to decompose, and contain higher nitrate levels. As for the latter, they have a higher carbon content, taking a long time to decompose and providing structure to the compost.
51. Rubber: Up To 1 Year
Natural rubber is made from plants. Therefore, it is biodegradable. This means it will start to decompose when you throw it away. Rubber that is stretched breaks down much faster than those that are not.
Once thrown away, the sulfur in the rubber begins to decay, and the rubber itself will start to break down. They’ll generally be decomposed in a year.
52. Silicone: 50 to 500 Years
If the silicone is exposed to specific conditions, it can take 50 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the environment. However, unlike plastic, silicone doesn’t break down into smaller pieces as it is highly durable. In addition, it can withstand extreme temperatures and usually doesn’t react with other elements.
53. Condom: 1000 Years
A latex condom will biodegrade after many years with the right conditions because it’s primarily made from a natural material. On the other hand, polyurethane condoms are made from plastic, so they’re definitely not biodegradable.
54. Dryer Sheet: Few Years
A dryer sheet is made from synthetic polyester, and the toxic chemicals target electrostatic charges and can take years to break down in landfills. Made of natural material, they will biodegrade after use and can be reused for up to 1000 loads as they do not contain toxic chemicals.
The dryer sheets made without parabens, animal-derived ingredients, and phthalates are compostable and recyclable. Look into dryer balls made of wool for a greener solution to dryer sheets.
55. Milk Carton: 3 Months
Milk cartons take 3 months to decompose. It can be waxed or non-waxed cartons. Waxed cartons that hold liquids like milk have a lower packaging-to-product ratio, so they decompose quicker than their non-waxed counterparts.
Unfortunately, many recycling plants don’t accept paper/plastic hybrid cartons, resulting in millions of tons of packaging waste being dumped in landfills yearly.
56. Tin Can: 50 Years
According to Electronics Recyclers International, tin can take half a century to break down in a landfill. Tin is used to make food cans, but it’s also a standard component of computers and other electronic products.
57. Ziploc Bag: 1,000 Years
It takes 1,000 years for a Ziploc bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, the bags don’t break down completely, but microplastics absorb toxins and pollute the environment. According to the EPA, out of 4.2 million tons of plastic bags generated in 2018, 3.04 million tons ended up in landfills.
Like all plastics, they are manufactured from crude oil, a non-renewable resource that causes significant pollution, and the product is not biodegradable. As Sciencing.com put it, “they are difficult to produce and nearly impossible to get rid of once produced.”
58. Apple Core: 2 Months
Unlike banana peels and oranges, apple cores don’t take quite long to decompose. Usually, an orange peel takes 6 months, but an apple core or a banana peel takes more than a month to decompose. Once tossed into the garbage, an apple core takes about eight weeks to biodegrade.
59. Wet Wipes: 100 Years
Wet wipes are convenient for removing makeup, changing babies’ diapers, and cleaning the house quickly. The problem is that they contain polyester-based plastic that’s virtually indestructible; they take a century to break down after they’re tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet.
60. Hay: 1 Year
If you hope to use hay for your yard or animals, then you should understand hay’s decomposition rate. In general, decomposition rates vary based on environmental factors. However, in most cases, hay starts to break down within a year. This is when hay is left in the elements and mostly untended.
61. Burlap: Between 2-5 Years
There are two main types of Burlap: Natural and Synthetic. Synthetic burlap never breaks down, it remains in the soil. Natural burlap, on the other hand, does decompose, but there are a lot of factors that determine the rate of decomposition. On average, it takes about synthetic burlap 2-5 years to decompose
62: Ceramic: More than 1000 years
Although ceramic is made from natural materials and is biodegradable, it will take over 1,000 years to decompose completely. This is because glazing makes it difficult for biodegradation agents to pass through the particles of potteries.
The article’s main aim is to make you understand whether our responsibility ends after disposing garbage in the bin. Trash remains on the Earth for years, decades, and even centuries. We need to switch to biodegradable products that degrade fast to reduce waste in real terms.