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Don't Throw This Away, Landfill Decomposition Rates

Written by: Clay Miller


The next time you throw something away or better yet, buy something, think about where the item will end up when you are done with it.  If you don't reuse or recycle that item, it probably will end up in a landfill.  Once in a landfill the only thing left for it to do is decompose.

Decomposition rates (rate at which it will totally break down into the earth) of items in landfills will vary depending on the amount of sunlight, moisture and air exposure it receives.  Some of these time ranges are very rough estimates.

The following breaks it down for you:

Apple core: 1 to 2 months, can take longer in landfills due to lack of microbes

apple coreglass bottles

Glass bottles: tens of thousands of years; glass is made from sand and it can outlast most anything

Plastic drinking bottles: hundreds of years; consist of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) which is made from petroleum, which won't break down

plastic water bottleplastic bag

Plastic bags: up to hundreds of years; newer plastic bags can photo-degrade, but most aren't exposed to sunlight when in a landfill

Milk carton: 5 years

milk cartonmilk jug

Plastic milk jug: 500 years

Aluminum can: 80 to 200 years

aluminum cansStyrofoam cups

Styrofoam: no sign of ever breaking down

Cigarette butt: 1 to 5 years


Newspaper: 2 to 4 weeks, can take longer in landfills due to lack of microbes; will decompose much faster when wet

"Pocket Guide to Marine Debris" from The Ocean Conservancy (2004), How Long Does It Take Waste Materials to Decompose and “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” Audubon magazine, Sept/Oct 1998.

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