How Long It Takes For Different Materials & Everyday Items To Break Down/Degrade

In this guide, we outline:

– How long different materials and items take to break down

– The different factors that might influence how quickly materials break down in different conditions

The guide below compliments our separate guide on the breakdown and degradation of plastic material and items specifically.


Summary – Biodegradation & Break Down Of Different Materials

Which Materials Break Down The Quickest?

Organic matter such as vegetables tends to be the quickest to break down

Of the more solid processed materials, paper, cardboard and cotton might be some of the quicker to break down materials

They can break down in days and months.


Which Materials Take The Longest To Break Down?

Glass, tinfoil, plastic, and styrofoam are commonly listed as the materials that take the longest to break down. They can take thousands, or millions of years

Tinfoil is made from tin, or aluminum

Styrofoam is made from styrene monomers, which comes from petroleum

Some reports indicate that plastic, styrofoam, and tinfoil might be materials that never break down, or, we haven’t had enough time pass since their production to be certain that they will fully break down in the environment on their own

Some scientists and researchers say that it’s possible that some micro or nano plastics (which break down from macro plastics) may last forever (or at least a very very long time)

In partial conflict to the data on plastic in this guide, a separate guide we wrote on how long plastic takes to degrade indicates that items like plastic bags and foam cups may only take 20 to 50 years to break down in the ocean

These materials may contribute to waste pollution on longer timescales than some other types of waste


Variables That Can Impact The Break Down Of Materials

Different materials and items break down at different rates, when exposed to different factors, in different conditions and environments

For example, there’s a difference between how long different materials might take to break down in landfills, compared to out in the environment in a river, in the ocean, or on land somewhere

Different factors such as whether a waste site has aerobic or anaerobic conditions, the amount of sunlight waste is exposed to, physical abrasion on the waste items, and other factors can impact decomposition rates


Different Materials Breakdown In Different Ways

Organic and natural materials like food tend to be compostable and biodegradable, as they are able to be broken down by naturally occuring bacteria, as well as the presence of light, water and oxygen

As another example, synthetic material like plastic usually don’t compost or biodegrade (some bioplastics are the exception to this in certain conditions), but break down via different processes.

Plastics as one example go through a process called photodegradation


How Long It Takes For Different Materials & Everyday Items To Break Down/Degrade

Break down durations in the environment:

Vegetables – 5 days, to 1 month

Paper – 2 to 5 months

Cotton T Shirt – 6 months

Orange Peels – 6 months

Tree Leaves – 1 year

Wool Socks – 1 to 5 years

Plastic Coated Paper Milk Cartons – 5 years

Leather Shoes – 25 to 40 years

Nylon Fabric – 30 to 40 years

Tin Cans – 50 to 100 years

Aluminum Cans – 80 to 100 years

Glass Bottles – 1 million years

Styrofoam Cup – 500 years to forever

Plastic Bags – 500 years to forever



Break down durations in landfill sites:

Thread – 3 to 4 months

Cotton – 1 to 5 months

Rope – 3 to 14 months

Cigarette – 1 to 12 years

Tetra Milk Packets & Drink Packets – 5 years

Leather Shoes – 25 to 40 years

Nylon Clothes – 30 to 40 years

Tin Can – 50 years

Aluminum Can – 200 years

Plastic Bottles – 70 to 450 years

Hairspray Bottle – 200 to 500 years

Fishing Line – 600 years

Sanitary Napkins & Children Diapers – 500 to 800 years

Plastic Bags – 500 to 1000 years

Glass Bottles – 1 million years

And, Certified Compostable Products will degrade usually within 90 days/3 months in a compostable environment.



Break down durations in landfill sites:

Train Tickets – 2 weeks

Apple Core Or Banana Peel – 1 month

Paper Waste – 2 to 6 weeks

Cardboard – 2 months

Cotton Glove – 3 months

Waxed Milk Carton – 3 months

Orange Peel – 6 months

Canvas Products – 1 year

Wool Clothing – 1 to 5 years

Ropes – 3 to 14 months

Plywood – 1 to 3 years

Milk Cartons – 5 years

Cigarette Butts – 10 to 12 years

Painted Board – 13 years

Lumber – 10 to 15 years

Leather Shoes – 25 to 40 years

Nylon Fabric – 30 to 40 years

Tin Can – 50 years

Foamed Plastic Cup – 50 years

Rubber Boot Sole – 50 to 80 years

Batteries – 100 years

Aluminum Cans – 80 to 200 years (other estimates of 200 to 250 years)

Disposable Diapers – 250 to 500 years

Plastic Bottles – 450 years or more

Monofilament Fishing Line – 600 years

Sanitary Pads – 500 to 800 years

Plastic Bags – 10 to 1000 years

Glass – 1 million years

Styrofoam – does not biodegrade

Tinfoil – does not biodegrade



In reference to plastic vs glass vs aluminum, mentions:

[One estimate put plastic at 400 years to decompose, with very high impact on wild life and micro plastic decomposition residue] 

[One estimate put glass at 1 million years to decompose, with minimal impact on wild life and glass decomposition residue]

[One estimate put aluminum at 100-400 years to decompose, with low impact on wild life and metal scrap decomposition residue] 


Read more about the break down of different materials of bottles in this guide.


Different Conditions & Environments Impact The Breakdown Of Different Materials

Materials may break down at different rates in different environments.

Different types of landfills can present different types of environments.

A landfill site will be a different type of environment to a composting facility. Some landfills for example lack the the light, water and bacterial activity for organic matter to biodegrade properly like that might in a compost facility or on soil

Landfill sites are different environments to the ocean, a river, or land.

As one example of the above with paper and plastic …


In a dry landfill, paper bags don’t degrade any faster than plastic bags.

In a normal, well-run landfill, paper bags do not biodegrade any faster over at least 40 years than plastic



Other Factors Impact How Long It Takes For Materials To Break Down

Other than the environment where waste is breaking down, other factors that can impact speed of decomposition can include:

– Exposure to light, water and oxygen (oxygen for example impacts whether the conditions are aerobic or anaerobic)

Exposure to UV light specifically in the case of plastic – which breaks down via photodegradation, and not biodegradation like organic matter does)

– Physical weathering on the waste material (such as ocean waves and the ocean floor weathering a waste material or item)

– Climate

– Temperature (cool vs warm conditions)

– Changes in pH and other environmental conditions that react with a material or item’s chemistry or chemical make up

– What the material is made of. Different plastics for example may break down differently in different conditions – bioplastics are an example of a plastic that may break down only under specific conditions. The product description should indicate under what conditions a bioplastic product can break down in.


How Long Different Plastics Take To Break Down

Read more in this guide about how long different plastics take to break down and degrade.











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