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It can take waste anywhere from a couple of months to hundreds of years to decompose – if it decomposes at all in some cases. As rubbish breaks down in landfill and bacteria start to decompose it, over time this process produces methane, which contributes to global warming. That’s why diverting waste away from landfills is so important.

Various factors can affect how quickly it takes everyday items to break down, even those made from the same materials. This includes the temperature, moisture, sunlight, the presence or lack of microorganisms, and level of exposure (if the waste is buried or not).

An awareness of how long everyday items and common waste materials take to decompose helps highlight the problems with landfill. Hopefully, it will encourage more households and businesses to reduce, reuse, and recycle where possible. Learn how long it takes for common waste types to decompose with Divert.

How Long Does it Take for Waste to Decompose?

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How long does plastic 
take to decompose?

It can take between 20 and 500 years for plastic to decompose, sometimes even thousands of years. Certain plastics don’t fully break down either, they just degrade into smaller particles. Plastic types such as PET (polyethylene terephthalate) don’t biodegrade naturally and require specific conditions with UV light, so won’t decompose in landfill.

The type of plastic, its structure, and environmental factors all affect how long it takes plastic to decompose. Biodegradable plastics offer potentially quicker decomposition times. The plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastic polylactic acid (PLA) takes up to 90 days to decompose. However, conditions must be perfect in commercial composting facilities at high temperatures, otherwise, it may take as long as traditional plastic.

How long does it take for a plastic bottle to decompose?

Plastic bottles can take up to 450 years to decompose. This is because most plastic bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is a non-biodegradable plastic. It’s a strong and lightweight material but it’s made with chemicals that bacteria can’t consume, so it takes a long time to degrade.

As most plastic bottles decompose in landfill they break down into nanoplastics that can remain in the environment. Many of these tiny plastic particles end up in our oceans, waterways, and air. It pollutes the environment and negatively affects wildlife, which is just another reason to recycle plastic waste.

How long does it take for a plastic bag to decompose?

It takes around 20 years for a plastic bag to decompose. However, some may take hundreds and even up to 1,000 years to completely break down. Most plastic carrier bags are made of either high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or low-density polyethylene. These are both organic polymers but are nonbiodegradable plastics.

As plastic bags are lightweight and thin they may decompose in as little as a decade or two in the right conditions. Even when they do decompose the plastic particles left behind may continue to pollute the environment.

crushed plastic bottles and packaging.

How long does glass 
take to decompose?

Glass doesn’t decompose naturally, and it may take up to 4,000 years to break down. It might even take up to a million years for glass to decompose, as glass bottles, jars, and vases from millennia ago are still found today and displayed in various museums.

Even though glass may break easily enough if dropped there are no microorganisms on the planet that consume glass materials. The good news is that glass is infinitely recyclable and can be reused and repurposed into new glass bottles, jars, and other products. Recycling glass is essential and waste glass should never go to landfill.

How long does paper 
take to decompose?

For paper to decompose it takes between two and six weeks. This is relatively quick compared to other materials, but it can be two to five months before the paper completely disappears if it’s disposed of in landfill. Most paper is recyclable up to six times, so should be recycled.

The type of paper and conditions affect how quickly it decomposes. Any paper with a plastic or wax coating like wrapping paper may take longer than thinner sheets of printing paper to break down. Shredded paper decomposes quickest. Certain kinds of paper are also compostable as long as no contaminants are present.

Types of paper you can compost and how long it may take include:

  • Shredded paper – one month
  • Printing paper, paper towels, and toilet paper – two months
  • Parchment paper and wrapping paper – 3 months
  • Newspaper and tissue paper – 5 months
  • Wax paper – 6 months

How long does cardboard 
take to decompose?

Cardboard can decompose within three months in the right conditions. If it’s shredded, soaked in water, and exposed to oxygen and the elements then it could even break down in two months. For this reason, waste cardboard can be composted and used as garden mulch, as long as there are no contaminants.

Any cardboard waste sent to landfill may take years to decompose though. When cardboard sheets are stacked up and tightly packed together it takes longer for them to break down. Most cardboard is recyclable and reusable. Cardboard should be recycled or shredded and mulched or composted rather than sent to landfill.

How long does metal 
take to decompose?

Generally, it takes anywhere between 50 and 500 years for metal to decompose. The conditions and type of metal impacts how long the process lasts. Many metals take thousands of years to break down if they do at all. That’s why you see many old bronze and other metal coins and armour from millennia ago in museums still.

Lots of metals rust when exposed to moisture, which weakens the material and causes them to decompose. However, most metals should be recycled or reused and repurposed rather than spending hundreds of years rusting and decomposing in landfill.

How long it takes different types of metals to decompose varies:

  • Aluminium – around 200 years
  • Stainless steel – 100 to more than 1,000 years
  • Iron – up to 100 years
  • Bronze – thousands of years
  • Lead – thousands of years
Read our paint tin guide

How long does wood 
take to decompose?

Wood is an organic material that decomposes naturally but how long it takes depends on the type of product and its size. For example, wood chips can decompose in three to six months as they’re small and made from natural wood. Large items of lumber furniture may take up to 15 years to decompose as they’re bigger and may contain chemicals.

Lots of wood products include contaminants such as paint, glue, and other chemicals. Their presence affects the rate of decomposition and whether such items can be composted or not. Recycling and reusing wood is better for the environment where possible. How long it may take wood to decompose based on its type:

  • Plywood – one to three years
  • Lumber – 10 to 15 years
  • Stumps and branches – 50 to 10 years (if whole)

How long does food waste 
take to decompose?

It may take between two to six months for most food waste to decompose. The conditions impact the speed of decomposition, such as soil temperature, moisture, and oxygen exposure. Food waste in landfill can take longer to break down due to a lack of oxygen and it will release methane into the environment.

Composting food waste away from landfill ensures the organic waste decomposes and is naturally recycled. How long it takes waste food to decompose may vary depending on the kind of food and its size, so cutting up leftovers is best for faster composting.

Examples of decomposing food waste time include:

  • Most vegetables – 5 days to one month
  • Meat – one to three months
  • Cheese – two weeks to six months
  • Orange peel – around six months
  • Pistachio shells – three years or more

Get a free quote to recycle and responsibly dispose of any waste type away from landfill with Divert. We can offer one-off waste removal from households and regular rubbish collections for businesses with free bins – call 0333 444 0118 or contact us online today.

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