Trashology 101

Trashology 101

• Tigger Montague

In 1973, my mother joined a group of other like-minded people to start a recycling center in our town. It was all volunteers, and my mother spent several afternoons a week down at the recycling center loading newspapers, cardboard, glass, and cans into tractor trailers to be taken away to a larger recycling plant in a nearby city.   

Getting her children to stop throwing cans, paper bags, and newspapers in the trash took some training. And the cans and glass jars had to be properly rinsed before heading to the recycling box in the garage.  We groaned and made ugly faces, but we adapted to this new “normal.”

What is surprising in 2018 is that, although recycling is routinely done by many homeowners and apartment dwellers, that is not the case in most public spaces, gas and convenience stations, grocery stores, dog parks, horse shows, convention centers, hotels, fast food restaurants, small and large companies, airports, shopping malls, and the big box stores.

The US is the number one trash-producing country in the world, at 1,609 pounds per person per year.  

I decided to take a look at the decomposition of different materials. How long does it take a thread-worn pair of cotton Levis with holes in the knees to break down in the landfill? The answer is 3-6 months. But a pair of Levis with spandex in them will not degrade for 40 years.

Biodegradability and landfills:
Different materials biodegrade at different rates.  Biodegradation needs microorganisms plus light, water, and oxygen.  Temperature is an important factor because microorganisms reproduce faster in warmer conditions.

Landfills lack the light, water, and bacterial activity required for the decomposition process.  Table scraps thrown into the garbage which end up in the landfill will biodegrade much more slowly, and not always completely, because of the lack of microbes.  That is one reason you can find newspapers up to 50 years old in landfills, whereas if the paper composted in soil it would break down in 2-5 months.

Typical biodegradability of common items, if left in the environment:
(source: The Garbage Project, University of Arizona)

  • Vegetables: 5 days to 1 month
  • Paper: 2-4 weeks
  • Wet paper: 1-2 weeks
  • Cotton t shirt: 3-6 months
  • Orange peels: 6 months
  • Tree leaves: 1 year
  • Wool socks: 1-5 years
  • Plastic-coated paper milk cartons: 5 years
  • Leather shoes: 25-40 years
  • Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
  • Tin cans: 50-100 years
  • Aluminum cans: 80-100 years
  • Glass bottles: 1 million years
  • Styrofoam cup: forever
  • Plastic bags: 450 years to forever

In the book Rubbish! The Archeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje and Cullen Murphy, the authors outline common misconceptions about landfills and decomposition.

“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.  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.”

An apple core, if thrown on the ground, will decompose in 3-9 days on average.  That same apple core in a landfill can take 2 months or more.

How long does garbage last in a landfill? 
(source: The Garbage Project, University of Arizona)

  • Aluminum: 200 plus years
  • Batteries: 100 years
  • Fishing net (nylon): 40 years
  • Fishing lines: 600 years
  • Tires: 2000 years
  • Plastic milk jug: 500 years
  • Milk carton: 5 years
  • Disposable diapers: 450 years
  • Sanitary pads: 500-800 years
  • Foamed plastic cups: 50 years
  • Rubber-boot or shoe sole: 50-80 years
  • Leather: 50 years
  • Nylon fabric: 30-40 years
  • Flip flop shoes: 1,000 years
  • Wool clothing: 1-5 years
  • Plastic bottles: 450 years
  • Styrofoam: does not biodegrade
  • Tinfoil: does not biodegrade
  • Plastic straws: 200 years
  • Cardboard: 2 months
  • Plastic beverage container: 500 years
  • Soda can: 50 years
  • Hairspray bottle: 200-500 years
  • Glass bottle: over a million years (as of 2008, only 23.1% of discarded glass was recycled).
  • Plastic shopping bags: 10-100 years (if exposed to sunlight)*

 *  these bags are made from polyethylene which can biodegrade, and break down when subject to ultraviolet radiation from the sun.  Problem is the microscopic synthetic granules of the polyethylene don’t decompose fully, thereby contaminating marine and terrestrial environments.    

Americans use over 2 million plastic bottles every hour, and most are not recycled.  Over 80 billion aluminum soda cans are consumed by Americans every year. Over 25 billion Styrofoam cups are thrown away in the US yearly.  

To produce Sunday newspapers across the country takes 500,000 trees.

As a nation, yearly, we discard 16 billion diapers, 1.6 billion pens, 1 billion razor blades, 220 million car tires, and enough aluminum to rebuild the US commercial air fleet four times over.

World-wide, more than one million plastic bags are used every minute.

In the last ten years, we have produced more plastic than during the whole of the 20th century. (from

Making a positive impact:
We don’t really need to use all of these flimsy plastic bags. We really don’t need to drink water out of plastic bottles or drink milk out of plastic milk jugs.  We can recycle clothing.  We can compost cotton and other natural fibers.  Wax paper is a good alternative to plastic wrap and can be composted, although it takes time to break down.  

We have become so accustomed to throwing things away that it has become a habit.  I can’t tell you how many Hershey Kisses aluminum wrappings I’ve tossed in the trash without thinking.  Based on my love of Hershey’s Kisses, I’ve sent a lot of aluminum to the landfill.

All we have to do is identify one wasteful habit and take the steps to form a new routine.  I am not going to stop eating Hershey’s Kisses. But those little silver wrappings are headed for the recycling bin.

Innovation and solutions:
Seeds for Kindness was born out of my search for more ways to reduce the amount of trash the world produces. What I discovered was that in small pockets around the world, artists, entrepreneurs, and small cooperatives are upcycling, re-purposing, re-imagining how to use trash that would end up in landfills, rivers, and oceans.

  • A New Orleans artist has taken discarded guitar strings and repurposed them to create earrings.  1.5 million pounds of guitar, banjo, violin, cello strings are in landfills across the US.
  • A womens’ cooperative in India takes used saris and turns them into beads for bracelets and necklaces.
  • A group of artists in Kenya harvest the discarded flip flops that wash up on beaches and by cleaning them and pressing them into blocks, carve colorful animal sculptures out of a material that won’t break down for one thousand years.
  • In the UK, two innovative women design purses, handbags and totes made out of decommissioned fire hoses.
  • In Virginia, an artist takes old bicycle chains, gears, computer components and creates clocks.
  • In North Carolina, an artist makes wind chime animals and figures out of old silverware.

Using found objects and upcycled materials, our creative artists are dedicated to an earth-friendly process. Supporting this creativity, craftsmanship and connection to the natural world is one way we can all help reduce waste and spread beauty to others around us.

Discover more innovative and sustainably-made products at

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  • Darlene

    Wow, I had no idea the length of time it takes to breakdown the materials of some items we use everyday. This article is a real eye-opener!

  • Kerry

    I hear you. It hurts me to throw out certain things I have no idea what else to do with. Like the plastic tops of milk cartons. Why do we need those? I have a bag full. And a sad note… although there are artists and village coops making things out of recycled flip flops and such, it’s such a drop in the bucket. We cannot actually recycle and repurpose all the plastic crap we produce. It simply must stop. I haven’t bought a plastic bottle of water in forty years. Just fill a stainless from the water filter on my sink. It’s NOT THAT HARD. :(

  • Lindsey

    Thank you for all this great information!

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