What Stuff Do We Throw Away That Takes Forever to Decay?

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Everyone has heard this call ad infinitum, but do we really take heed? Yes, sorting your trash is a good start, but that still only ticks one box. Maybe you’re a stellar glass and plastic recycler, never go to the shops without your canvas bag, yet still find yourself struggling to reduce your consumption. If that sounds familiar, unfortunately you’re still part of the problem. Or, if you’d prefer a different label, just your average citizen.

According to a recent set of statistics compiled by alternative energy firm SaveOnEnergy, each of us in the U.S. generates more than 4 pounds of trash a day. That translates to a total of “more than 220 million tons of trash” produced across the country every year, a large portion of which ends up in landfills. Put another way by the company Waste Management, the average American will discard “600 times the amount of his or her adult weight in garbage” during their lifetime.

Like most of our environmental concerns, this situation has already reached well beyond critical.

One of the main issues comes down to decay. Any trash that isn’t recycled ends up filling landfills. Due to this mounting situation, Waste Management notes, these dumps have grown to become the “second largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.” And if there’s one thing our climate could do without, it’s more methane.

A 2015 Livescience article points out that “twice as much solid waste” is being sent to landfills than previous estimates. As a result, methane levels are steadily rising, creating a greenhouse gas with the potential to trap heat in our atmosphere “25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide,” according to the EPA.

"There is a popular notion that in its depths, the typical municipal landfill is a locus of roiling fermentation, of intense chemical and biological activity," William L. Rathje and Cullen Murphy explain in their book Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage. "The truth is, however, that the dynamics of a modern landfill are very nearly the opposite of what most people think. Biologically and chemically, a landfill is a much more static structure than is commonly supposed."

Listed below are some facts and figures about the main culprits contributing to this mess.

1. Plastic

You don’t need an environmental expert to tell you that plastic is one of the main contributors to our methane miasma. From straws to water bottles, plastic is everywhere and takes forever to decompose (OK, not literally, but anywhere from around 450 to 1,000 years). Apart from the additional bulk this adds to landfills, plastic spells disaster for aquatic animals, such as this poor turtle:

2. Paper

Paper contributes the greatest amount in volume to American landfills, notes SaveOnEnergy. Once deposited, paper takes on average between 2-6 weeks to fully decompose. Just imagine the landfill space that could be saved if we simply recycled all that paper. That is why it’s important to keep driving the message home.

3. Glass

Glass should be the top priority when it comes to recycling. Apart from the fact that it is one of the easiest materials to recycle (owing to the fact it’s mostly made of sand), glass that ends up in landfills will take around a million years to decompose, if at all.

4. Food waste

Here’s a figure sure to grab your attention: America produces enough food waste to fill Pasadena's 90,000-seat Rose Bowl football stadium, every single day. In fact, SaveOnEnergy reports that food waste comprises the number-one most common item in American landfills. As for the decomposition time of all that waste, that depends on the food. An orange peel can take up to 6 months to decompose, while an apple or banana peel takes only a month. Either way, it all ends up contributing to the methane buildup.

5. Diapers, cans, etc.

Eighteen-billion disposable diapers are used in America every year. Each diaper takes around 250-500 years to decompose after reaching a landfill. As for aluminium cans, notes SaveOnEnergy, every three months the equivalent number of cans that end up in landfills could be used to “rebuild the entire American commercial air fleet.” Each can takes anywhere from 80 to 200 years to decompose.

Here’s the SaveOnEnergy infographic showing the kinds of waste that takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 35 years to decompose:

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And here's the much scarier infographic showing the waste that takes between 50 to 1 million years to fully decompose:

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If you’re still reading, there is hope. It is never too late to change your behavior and believe it or not, sticking to the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—can still make a genuine difference. Here’s how:

  • Let’s start with an easy one: plastic. There are so many small ways to cut down plastic use. One simple solution is to reuse plastic grocery bags when you buy your food. Or better yet, get yourself a canvas bag.

  • Avoid buying products that generate waste material that takes years to decompose. The Balance has compiled a list of technology products that are “designed with recycling in mind.”

  • Recycle your tin cans! Seriously. According to Waste Management, one ton of recycled aluminium saves “10 cubic yards of landfill space.”

  • Reducing food waste is one of the biggest areas where each one of us can make a difference. From composting your leftovers to more conscious purchasing practices, there are a number of ways you can reduce the amount of food that gets sent to landfills. Listed here are 25 more ways you can do that.

  • Cut down on meat consumption, even if it’s just one day a week. This is another example of a small change in behavior that can make a massive difference to the environment, not to mention your health.

Many years from now, we may look back on this time and wonder how we were ever so wasteful for so long. For now, though, we have a lot of room for improvement. As overwhelming as things may appear on a global level, the change really does begin at home. By adjusting your consumption habits even slightly, the accumulative effect will be profound.

Infographics courtesy SaveOnEnergy.


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