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

This guide outlines how long different materials and items take to break down, along with different factors that might influence how quickly materials break down in different conditions.

 

Summary – Biodegradation & Break Down Of Materials

Different materials and items break down at different rates in different conditions and environments

For example, plastic, glass, metal, natural fibre items like cotton, and organic items like a banana peel will all take different time spans to break down into micro particles – and, whether they are breaking down in say a landfill, the ocean or on land can impact break down rate too.

Even different types of landfills might be responsible for different degradation rates of different materials

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

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

Regardless of conditions, organic matter like food, and the material paper tend to be two of the quickest degrading materials. They can break down in days and months.

Plastic (and styrofoam which is a type of plastic), glass and tinfoil tend to be a few of the slowest materials to break down, taking decades, or even hundreds, thousands, or even a million years in the case of glass bottles. This can be a problem with waste pollution in the environment

Some scientists and researchers say that it’s possible some plastics may never fully break down i.e. they may be around as micro or nano plastics forever (or at least a very very long time)

For some materials, we haven’t had enough time to assess how long they actually take to break down

 

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

– sciencelearn.org.nz

 

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.

– down2earthmaterials.ie

 

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

– thebalancesmb.com

 

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

– bankrate.com via bettermeetsreality.com

 

What Factors Determine How Long It Takes For Materials To Break Down

Exposure to light, water and oxygen

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

Physical weathering (such as ocean waves)

Climate and 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

Specific conditions of being in/on landfills vs composts vs the ocean vs fresh water rivers vs on land. 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

 

How Long Different Plastics Take To Break Down

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

Separate to plastics are bio plastics. These plastics might be compostable in specific conditions, but not in others.

You need to read the certification that comes with the bioplastic product.

 

Sources

1. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/how-long-plastic-takes-to-break-down-degrade-in-landfills-in-the-ocean-the-environment/

2. https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1543-measuring-biodegradability

3. https://www.down2earthmaterials.ie/2013/02/14/decompose/

4. https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033

5. https://www.bettermeetsreality.com/is-paper-more-sustainable-than-plastic-comparison/

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