Sustainable Living & Sustainable Lifestyle

Not all trash is equal. Although many people never think about it, every trash item in the house takes a different length of time to decompose.  

Decompose Trash: How Long Does it Take

It’s amazing and depressing to learn how long household trash last in landfills, but you can take steps to control how your home’s waste impacts the environment

Not all trash is equal. Although many people never think about it, every trash item in the house takes a different length of time to decompose trash. And some products don’t disintegrate at all.

It’s important to understand know how long it takes trash to decompose if you want to change the course we’re currently on. In the United States, people create about four pounds of waste per person every day. That’s the highest amount of any country in the world.

Much of that waste sits in landfills for years, decades, even centuries. In some cases, it sits there forever. Some of it, especially waste people simply toss into nature, may eventually pollute the ocean and seas, causing great harm to marine life.

Products That Don't Disintegrate


How long does it take trash to decompose? The following looks at biodegradable items and products that don’t disintegrate.

Biodegradable Items

The following common household items are biodegradable and listed in descending order based on how long it takes them to decompose.

Plastic wrap, 1,000 years. It’s convenient to store food, but lasts 10 centuries in a landfill.

Ziploc bags, 1,000 years. Another item that lasts 10 centuries, and is unlikely to get recycled because of food contamination.

Plastic bottles, 10 to 1,000 years. About 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills every single day.

Plastic straws, 500 years. The video of a marine biologist and her team pulling a straw out of a sea turtle’s nose has helped prompt action to eliminate plastic straws.

Scrap metal, 500 years. Almost every kind of metal is easily recycled, but many people just toss it, anyway.

Ink cartridges, 450 to 1,000 years. Many houses have them, which is why about 375 million end up in landfills every year.

Aluminum foil, 400 years. Aluminum foil is typically not recycled, so it ends up in landfills, where it will remain until the 25th century.

Disposable diapers, 250 to 500 years. Very convenient, but about 20 billion end up in landfills every year.

Sanitary pads, 250 to 500 years. They are necessary, but contain materials that do not quickly decompose.

Aluminum cans, 60 to 200 years. A highly recyclable item that still fills up landfills.

Batteries, 100 years. Batteries account for about 20% of the hazardous materials in landfills.

Rubber-sole shoes, 50 to 80 years. Those soles make walking more comfortable, but they are made from petroleum products that last for decades in landfills.

Tires, 50 to 80 years. Tires contain more synthetics than rubber, making them last even longer in landfills.

Tin cans, 50 years. Tin cans are in your house for a week or so to store tuna and vegetables, then last half a century in landfills when you throw them out.

Nylon, 30 to 40 years. The process to create nylon also releases greenhouse gases.

Leather shoes, 25 to 40 years. It’s not so much the leather that makes them last, but the chemicals used to color the leather.

Painted, treated wood, 13 years. The chemicals in paint and treated wood may eventually impact the environment.

Cigarette butts, 10 to 12 years. Another reason to quit smoking: butts last a decade after you throw them out.

Plastic-coated milk cartons, 5 years. The plastic coating keeps the cartons together for longer in landfills.

Wool clothing, one to 5 years. Cotton, as you will see below, does better in landfills.

Cotton clothing, 5 months. 100% cotton shirts decompose quite quickly, but not if blended with synthetic materials.

Six-pack soda rings, 4 months. These are still a thing with consumers because they are convenient.

Non-biodegradable items

These household items do not decompose. Once they are thrown out, they last forever unless destroyed by fire.

  • Glass bottles. One of the most popular recycle items, but tons still reach landfills.
  • Styrofoam. Styrofoam accounts for about 30% of all the waste in landfills.
  • Light bulbs. Broken glass from light bulbs can become hazardous to people and animals. They may also leak mercury into the environment.

Steps You Can Take

The numbers above seem overwhelming. But there are steps you can take to reduce the impact of the waste from your household.

The first is to buy and use items that do not last as long in landfills. For example, wear items for as long as possible (such as shoes) and get long-lasting LED light bulbs.

Also, commit to finding out what items in your household waste can get recycled. You can place many of the items above into recycling bins if you have one at your home, or taken to recycling centers in your town.

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