Decomposition Times of Everyday Objects in Nature

Did you know that a glass jar can take up to 4,000 years to decompose in nature? In this article, we'll talk about how long everyday objects take to decompose.
Decomposition Times of Everyday Objects in Nature

Last update: 26 June, 2021

In order to become aware of the damage that the trash we generate is causing, we need to understand how long everyday objects take to decompose in nature. If we knew the decomposition times of certain products, we might avoid using them or at least decrease our consumption.

The importance of recycling goes beyond reusing objects in other ways after applying certain processes. It’s about contributing to the health of the planet and protecting forests, jungles, beaches, and grasslands from the noxious effects that trash has when it ends up there.

Paper and cardboard

Paper is made from cellulose, a polymer that consists of millions of glucose molecules, which belong to the world of carbohydrates. It’s one of the main components of plants, and the final appearance will depend on the different processes it undergoes during manufacturing.

In addition to having a long history, paper can be found everywhere: at home, work, school, and offices. Whether you’re filling out a form, buying a book, or writing a note by hand, paper seems to be indispensable.

Every time we throw away a piece of paper, it takes between 5 and 12 months to decompose in the environment. This might not seem like much, but it needs to be under the proper conditions in order to decompose. This natural process requires light, water, and oxygen to occur.

Aluminum cans are highly recyclable.
Aluminum can be found in everyday life, both in construction and small objects.

Decomposition of aluminum

Aluminum is one of the lighter metals, and is widely used as a substitute for steel in certain items that require a lightweight structure. Additionally, it’s used in the automotive and aerospace industries, packaging and bottling, as well as construction.

Recycling recovery rates of aluminum cans are very high, up to 95%. Nearly 100% of the container can be recycled and reused. If the can ends up in the trash and isn’t recycled, it will take 10 years to decompose.

However, a very common type of packaging that surely many of us use is the Tetra Brik. It’s made of cellulose, polyethylene, and aluminum. This type of container takes 30 years to decompose completely.

Breakdown of plastics

Plastic is a synthetic material made from petroleum derivatives. It has so many advantages in the manufacturing of all kinds of items that its use has become excessive. Plastics pose a threat to all types of ecosystems.

Plastics take the longest time to decompose. We’re talking about centuries. They can take up to 500 years to break down. However, they don’t decompose completely. They become microplastics that remain in the sea, on beaches, and in soil around the world.

80% of contamination in the oceans and seas comes from the land.

Continue reading: 5 Ways to Recycle Plastic Bottles

Decomposition of batteries

Batteries are manufactured from various substances, some of which are very harmful to health and the environment. These substances include magnesium dioxide, mercury, nickel, and cadmium. In small quantities, they may have no harmful effects, but if we’re talking about thousands of tons the panorama changes dramatically.

There are different types of batteries: carbon-zinc, alkaline, and lithium. While each type has different uses, they all contaminate the soil and water to some degree.

When the decomposition process begins, their layers give off metals such as mercury, which has a worrying contaminating power. Just one battery contaminates 3,000 liters of water, while a mercury battery contaminates 600,000 liters.

Glass

Glass is an amorphous ceramic material made from silica sand and dry metal oxides which are crushed and put into a reactor that can reach more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. A liquid with a thick consistency is formed, allowing it to take shape as it reaches a solid state.

Bottles, jars, windows, windshields, lamps… all of these glass items are a part of life and almost go unnoticed. There are two figures related to glass objects that, aside from being overwhelming, are also shocking. It takes 4,000 years to degrade, and it’s 100% recyclable. 

This means that small actions, like recycling containers, can give the planet thousands of years of health.

Decomposition times of other objects

Instead of fully decomposing, plastic waste is converted to microplastics that damage the environment.
Microplastics are an ever-growing environmental problem, and their presence continues to increase.

Scientists rely on several tests to estimate how long everyday objects take to decompose.  These tests measure the carbon dioxide levels, or the oxygen consumption of organisms.

For example, they place organic waste in a container with soil and microorganisms, such as an apple peel and a plastic bag, and allow air to circulate. As the days go by, these microorganisms digest the materials and produce carbon dioxide, whose quantity serves as an indicator of degradation.

In the case of the plastic bag, consumption of carbon dioxide doesn’t occur with the organisms, because they don’t use it as food. This means that this material doesn’t biodegrade, but rather is photodegradable and responds to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

On the basis of this type of decomposition, scientists estimate that it can take centuries for a plastic bag to be converted into microscopic particles. In addition to the objects we’ve already mentioned, we’d like to share a list of decomposition times of other everyday objects.

Vegetables 5 days – 1 month
Cotton clothing 2 – 5 months
Wool clothing 1 – 5 years
Leather shoes 25 – 40 years
Nylon fabric 30 – 40 years
Cigarette butts 1 – 12 years
Diapers 500 – 800 years
Lighters Over 100 years
Cell phone batteries 450 – 1,000 years
Credit cards 1,000 years

The time it takes for everyday objects to decompose is alarming

Environmental degradation begins when trash is buried. We should remember that everything we throw away will begin the decomposition process, giving off toxins that are harmful to the environment and to our health.

Considering the years, centuries, and millennia that materials can take to decompose, it’s important to realize that the health of the planet is in our hands. We invite you to put the concept of the three ‘R’s into practice: reduce, reuse, and recycle. 

With a little effort, you can contribute to the planet’s conservation now that you know how long everyday objects take to decompose in nature.

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