How long it takes 50 common items to decompose
The phrase "ashes to ashes, dust to dust," comes from a common English Christian burial rite that includes the following King James Bible quote: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
That's a fancy way of saying that at some point we—like everything else on Earth—will eventually decompose. The word decompose means "to separate into constituent parts or elements or into simpler compounds," according to Merriam-Webster. Biodegradation is a similar process, but one that's defined by elements that can be broken down into innocuous parts by the action of living things like worms or microorganisms.
All non-living things are eventually broken down into simple molecules by the elements, microorganisms, and the ravages of time, but some things take significantly longer to decompose than others. When a person throws something in the garbage, the discarded item seems to be out of their life forever. However, the item's journey to elemental breakdown or decomposition has just begun. Organic materials like the leftover pieces of salad someone couldn't quite finish can return to the Earth in a matter of days, but the plastic that salad was packaged in can stay put for thousands of years.
It's important to note that many variables affect decomposition, and the timelines stated in this article are derived from averages or amalgamations based on large samples. Decomposition rates can 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. Also, some items like plastic bottles contain a variety of objects that are made differently from various quantities of dissimilar materials. In other words, not all plastic bottles are the same, so they're likely to have varied decomposition rates.
While decomposition rates are inherently inexact, it is a topic worth discussing considering 8 million tons of plastic trash are dumped into the ocean every single year. In a world overflowing with discarded things, it's important to know how long trash will hang around.
Read on to find out how long it takes 50 common items to decompose.
You may also like: Eco-friendly replacements for 50 plastic items in your life
Cigarette butts: 18 months to 10 years
Cigarette butts just might be the most common litter on planet Earth. Smokers consume about 5.5 trillion cigarettes every year, and a huge percentage of them wind up flicked out of car windows or dropped on the street where they wash into storm drains and then into the ocean or other waterways. Cigarette filters contain the slowly degrading plastic cellulose acetate, and butts are believed to represent a third of all litter in America; they are the most common litter found on America's beaches.
Monofilament fishing line: 600 years
According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, monofilament fishing line is especially hazardous because it ensnares and traps marine animals and other wildlife during its long, slow road to decomposition. Although monofilament fishing lines can be partially recovered and reused, the process for doing so isn't widely used.
Plastic bags: 10–1,000 years
Consumers in recent years have become more aware of the environmental hazard posed by plastic bags, but plastic bags are still one of the most common pollutants. Although they can break down in as little as a decade, the commonly discarded thin plastic bags can endure for as long as 1,000 years.
Foamed plastic cups: 50 years
Foamed plastic cups decompose faster than most plastic waste. Even so, these plastic cups can be expected to endure for half a century before they finally break down and rejoin nature.
Straws: 200 years
Since they are essentially unnecessary (for most people) and almost never make it into the recycling bin, plastic straws have become a top target of environmentalists hoping to reduce plastic waste. Americans use millions of straws a day: Every straw can remain on the Earth for two centuries after being tossed in the garbage.
Wet wipes: 100 years
Wet wipes are popular for quickly removing makeup, changing babies' diapers, and making housecleaning a snap. The problem is 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.
6-pack holders: 450 years
Even when the circles on plastic six-pack holders are cut, they still pose a major threat to wildlife, as they often wind up in the ocean. The thin plastic can holders take nearly half a millennium to break down.
Tin: 50 years
Tin can take half a century to break down in a landfill, according to Electronics Recyclers International. Tin is used to make food cans, but it's also a common component of computers and other electronics.
Tires: 2,000 years
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources estimates that tires can take two millennia to revert back to nature. They're also laden with heavy metals like lead, oils, and other pollutants that contaminate the environment as they break down. About 242 million tires are discarded every year in the U.S. alone, and only 7% are recycled.
Nylon fishing nets: 40 years
Nylon fishing nets can be reused, but they can't be fully recycled. When they're lost or intentionally cut, they present a major hazard to marine animals and other wildlife that become entangled in them both in the water and on shores.2018 All rights reserved.