What material takes the longest to decompose?

Humans have a bad habit of abruptly throwing something away when they no longer see the good in it. Not actively seeing the volume of waste we create, we did not expect the impact of all the waste we throw not only in landfills but in the surrounding environment as well. 

Giant countries create over a pound of waste individually per day, it’s no wonder we are rapidly reaching the limit of our landfills.

While some countries have started pushing businesses and individuals to embrace greener habits, we are far from real solutions to the problem. What’s even worse is how what was once a garbage problem has led to the global crisis called climate change. 

With recycling still not being actively practiced, landfills continue to fill up. This is because there’s just too much trash in these facilities that it becomes harder for these things to decompose.

While landfills are full of different wastes, plastic remains to be our biggest problem because it takes the longest to decompose.

Are we close to a landfill shortage?

There are approximately 3,000 active landfills and over 10,000 old landfills, including decommissioned and full ones. Despite the numbers, we are on track to run out of space in landfills within 18 years. 

It’s not surprising at all, since an average person creates around four pounds of waste per day.

Common household items that take longest to decompose

Plastic wraps (1,000 years)

Plastic wraps help us preserve leftovers, but it does not help in our environment. Consisting of PVC and other manmade materials, they can even pose health risks when used as food storage. While it helps us keep food fresh, it hurts the environment when it ends up in a landfill. 

Ziploc bags (1,000 years)

500 Ziploc bags are used by every family every year, and that’s just an estimate. While these bags do a great job to preserve and store our food, disposing of them is a different story. Most recycling centers don’t accept Ziploc bags, and if they contain any food residue or waste they can’t be recycled either.

Plastic bottles (10-1,000 years)

From drinks to cleaning supplies, everything comes in a plastic bottle nowadays. While they are super convenient to our lifestyle, there is no denying how much of a burden they are on landfills. More or less around 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfill everyday.

Plastic straws (500 years)

They have always done more harm than good, even before the popular turtle video made the rounds on social media. Most fast food establishments use plastic straws, and this makes them more susceptible to finding their way into the environment. Because of how notorious they have become as marine litter, plastic straws are not as popular today. More people and establishments have made the switch to reusable straws made from bamboo, glass, and metal.

Aluminum foil (400 years)

The sad thing about tin foil being a staple in most kitchens is that it does not decompose. Over 75 percent of the aluminum foil produced in the US is used for food packaging. A high percentage of those ends up at the local landfills. What makes tin foil non-recyclable is its contents and its inability to absorb light. There are also too much food scraps such as grease that cannot be removed, making it even harder to go through decomposition.

Aluminum cans (80-200 years)

For something that is so easy to recycle, aluminum cans often find a final resting place in landfills. This could be due to a lack of recycling resources, or the fact that people are just oblivious to how they dispose of their trash. Research shows that a whopping $700 million worth of aluminum cans are thrown per year, a huge chunk of which sitting on landfills.

Tin cans (50 years)

We count on tin cans to hold many preserve items, from soup to vegetable to tuna. They are durable and not easily corroded, which is ideal for food and beverages. However, this is exactly what makes them a problem for landfills and the environment. 

Is there anything we can do to solve the problem?

  • Donating is an easy solution for getting rid of our junk. A lot of donation centers will gladly take a slightly used item, anything from furniture to older appliances. Large items such as mattresses, TV, desks, light fixtures and even pianos are best donated than thrown away. These items are not recyclable and will just end up waiting in landfills for a long period of time. Not only do we throw our trash more sensibly with donating, we also give our items a second home and allow someone else to benefit from them.
  • Fully switch to biodegradable products. By definition, biodegradable products are made from substances that can be broken down by microorganisms. If these products end up in a landfill, they will at least break down over time instead of occupying more space.

Common questions about materials taking the longest to decompose

How long does metal take to decompose?

Flimsier metals including tin cans take around 50 years to completely decompose. Aluminum cans, however, would need from 200 to 500 years before it degrades.

What is the number one item in landfills?

A recent survey showed that plain paper waste, including newspapers, make up the biggest chunk of landfill wastes in the world. This is contrary to the popular belief that plastic wastes are our biggest garbage problem.

Does anything decompose in a landfill?

We were brought to believe that landfills are supposed to be where our trash decomposes. However, their design was to just contain wastes and not degrade them. If something even decomposes in a landfill, the decomposition process is known to be slow and long.

We need to focus on recyclable and biodegradable materials. Despite various campaigns to fully switch to a more sustainable lifestyle with minimum waste, there is but little development to our problem about decomposition.

It’s either our lack of commitment or craving for convenience that hinders us from truly living green. The best way for us to attack the situation is to limit our junk output, focus on donating, recycling, reusing and upcycling.