Every day we consume various products and have masses of wastes, mostly packaging items to dispose of. Municipal wastes comprise of materials made of plastics, paper, metals, glass, and organic materials in different combinations. The various materials have different chemical composition which mostly determines how they react with water and air in the natural environment when dumped on the landfill.
While materials of organic origin decompose within days or weeks, synthetic materials like plastics plastic may never decompose in our lifetime and materials such as metals will rather rust. Knowing how long it will take for materials to decompose can help appreciate the need for efficient resource conservation and the circular economy.
Plastics have become the most used item packaging industry due to their inexpensive production cost and flexibility. Plastics are used in a range of products; from rigid car parts, computer part, chairs, buckets and toys to lightweight single-use bottles, bags and films.
Plastics used for lightweight products with soft bonding such as plastic bags decompose within 20-30 years. However, these products mostly breakdown into micro-plastics which sink into water bodies and the soil. Plastics used to make more rigid products take 100s of years to decompose.
With the current waste management system in Nigeria, less than 10% of total plastic waste generated end up burnt on landfills, open dumps or drainage ways.
Steels are the most recycled items in the world; some steel products in your house are pots, spoons, tin cans etc. Steel can be recycled over and over again and used in the production of new steel products. When not recycled, items made of steel may take up to 50-80 years on landfill before decomposing.
Aluminium is said to be the most abundant metal on earth, used for the production of automotive parts, beverage cans, foil etc. Aluminium is 100% recyclable and can be recycled into a new product in as few as 60 days. Even though there are many benefits to recycling aluminium, they still find their way to landfills where it takes over 200-500years to decompose.
Disposable baby diapers are convenient for use when nurturing a child. Diapers are made up of paper, plastic, cotton and most notably baby excreta. Due to the mix of materials, diapers are only collected by a few special recycling programs. On dumps, diapers take over 500 years to decompose.
According to the global forest resource assessment, approximately 80,000 to 160,000 trees are cut down each year for use in the paper industry. While 58% of the paper produced globally is recycled, 42% end up on landfill and take 2-6 weeks to decompose.
Textiles are made from pure organic plant materials such as cotton, flax or jute and combined with synthetic materials such as polyester. Textile recycling is not mainstream across the world, worn-out textiles are easily resold and repurposed. However, textiles disposed of take 6 to 36 months to decompose.
Glass and Ceramics
Glass and ceramics are made from very common elements such as sand and clay. Although these materials are theoretically easy to recycle, only special recycling programs accept them because the process of collecting and transporting is tasking. Glass and ceramics may never decompose.
Food and Garden Waste
The decomposition time for food and garden waste vary depending on how wet or dry it is. Decomposition could take as short as 2 weeks or as long as 6 months. Food waste can be used for compost to promote soil fertility.
Here’s a list of how long it takes for other items to decompose
- Aluminium cans: 200 – 500 years
- Apple Core: 2 months
- Batteries: 100 years
- Cardboard Boxes: 3 months
- Cigarette Butts: 10 years
- Coffee Cups: 3 months
- Ceramics: may never decompose
- Cotton Cloth: 6 months
- Disposable Diapers: 500 years
- Plastic Cups: 450 years
- Glass Bottle: 1 million years
- Leather shoes: 20 – 50 years
- Lumber: 10-15 years
- Juice Boxes: 5 years
- Newspaper: 6 weeks
- Orange or Banana Peel: 2-5 weeks
- Paper Towel: 2-4 weeks
- Plastic Bag: 10-20 years
- Plastic Bottle: 450 years
- Plywood: 1-3 years
- Rubber-Boot Sole: 50-80 years
- Sanitary Pads: 500-800 years
- Styrofoam: It does not biodegrade
- Tin can: 50 years
- Tinfoil: 400 years
- Tree Leaves: 1 year
- Vegetables: 5 days – 1 month
- Wool Clothing: 1-5 years
As much as the idea of letting waste decompose in landfills seems good, we now that some of the items which we use may never decompose in our lifetime, generations to come may suffer from the pollution we make today, take responsibility today. Responsible consumption is the key to a zero-waste world, next time you go grocery shopping make sure to buy items that can be recycled and or decompose fast enough to make the earth a better place for generations to come.