Why Does it Take So Long for the Garbage in a Landfill to Break Down?

A landfill is an area of land that is used to dump garbage and everything that isn’t recyclable in one spot. There are 3,000 active landfills in the US that are holding heaps of trash but according to a new report by the Solid Waste Environmental Excellence Protocol (SWEEP) they are nearing their full capacity.

How Long For Trash To Decompose

But why doesn’t the trash decompose or why does it take so long for the garbage in a landfill to break down? Let’s get into details.

Types of Waste in Landfills

Following is a list of the items that are most found in landfills.

  • A huge amount of 30.63 million tons of food end up in landfills annually, constituting the largest portion of our waste. 
  • Plastics, comprising 18 percent of the landfill, contribute significantly to pollution. We should find ways to recycle these plastics instead of throwing them away.
  • 8.65 million tons of yard trimmings constitute the yearly garbage in the USA.
  • Americans dispose of 6.87 million tons of glass every year!
  • You won’t believe it, but the amount of leather and rubber disposed of by the residents every year is 4.95 million tons.
  • Almost 18.35 million tons of paper and paperboard are thrown away annually.

Why are Landfills Slow to Decompose?

Why does it take so long for the garbage  in a landfill to break down? Not all substances are easily biodegradable. There are items that take even more than twenty years to break down and decompose.

On the other hand, waste is rapidly taken to landfills on a daily basis. In America, there is an increase in the landfill waste which makes the decomposition even more slow. 

Let’s have a look at the list of some common waste types and the time they take to decompose:

MaterialDecomposition Time
Paper towels2-4 weeks
Newspaper2-4 weeks
Plain unwaxed cardboard3 months
Disposable diaper10-20 years
Plastic bag10-20 years
Leather50 years
Nylon30-40 years
Steel can80-100 years
Cotton shirt3-6 months
Rope1 year
Plywood1-3 years
Waxed milk carton5 years
Cigarette1-5 years
Glass 4000 years
Aluminum can200-500 years
Styrofoam cup50 years or more
Plastic water bottle450 years or more
Rubber tireSeveral hundred years
Painted wood10-15 years
Tin can50 years
Painted metal20-30 years
Polyester fabric20-200 years
PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)Hundreds of years
PET plastic (Polyethylene Terephthalate)400 years or more
Polystyrene (foam packaging)Thousands of years
Aluminum foil200-500 years
Disposable razorsHundreds of years
Disposable camera batteriesSeveral hundred years

Since the items take too long to decompose and the country has been sending lots of recyclable and compostable waste to landfills as well, the landfills are filled up rapidly but the breakdown process takes a lot of time.

Effect of Dumping Waste into Landfills on the Environment

Following are the effects of improper disposal of waste on the environment.

Fire Hazard:

Dumped garbage can mix and produce flammable gasses, raising the risk of spontaneous fires. Unchecked, these fires can escalate, turning into destructive forest fires that harm our surroundings.

Flooding Dangers:

Illegal dump sites can disrupt natural water pathways, causing floods. Erosion, accelerated by dumped trash, further contributes to the risk of floods, impacting both the environment and our neighborhoods.

Breeding Ground for Diseases:

Dumped waste attracts insects and animals carrying diseases like dengue fever and malaria. The presence of these pests poses a direct threat to human health, increasing the risk of illnesses.

Mental Health Impact:

Living near dump sites can affect mental well-being. The perception of an area as ‘dirty’ due to illegal dumping can make people feel uncomfortable and unsafe, influencing mental health negatively.

Visual Impact:

Illegal dumping sends a negative visual message, impacting urban and residential areas. Bad smells and visible trash can discourage potential buyers, leading to a decrease in property values and overall market decline.

Disease Spread:

Unprocessed waste becomes a source for diseases that affect animals, plants, and humans alike. Proper waste disposal is crucial to prevent the spread of these diseases.

Impact on Plants:

Contaminants in the air and water harm plants, making even uncontaminated soil toxic for them. Improper waste disposal poses a threat to plant life, affecting ecosystems.

Animal and Marine Issues:

Land and sea animals suffer due to waste. From sea turtles ingesting plastic to animals encountering hazardous materials, improper waste disposal contributes to species extinction and ecosystem damage.

Loss of Habitats and Biodiversity:

Improper waste disposal contributes to global climate change, damaging habitats and reducing biodiversity. This leads to species extinction, making it harder for nature to adapt to environmental changes.

Methods to Reduce Landfill Waste

Since the solid waste disposal is increasing to a great extent, we need to look for ways which can lower the amount of solid waste created.

Following are some methods to reduce solid waste:

  • In some places, you can toss plastic, glass, cardboard, and paper into one bin. Smart waste facilities then sort it out, helping us recycle more without breaking the bank.
  • Composting is an easy way to reduce waste. Yard trimmings, making up 6.2% of landfills, can decompose naturally. 
  • Give clothes to those in need, save leftovers, and donate the items you don’t want to use anymore. Reusing items not only saves money but also conserves resources.
  • Switching to natural cleaning agents like vinegar and baking soda can help solve our problems. Not only are they kind to the environment, but they also reduce waste from numerous cleaning product containers.

See What Happens When Landfills Are Full?

Frequently Asked Questions

What can be done to address landfill issues?

Waste reduction tips include recycling, adopting a zero-waste philosophy that encourages reusing products, and embracing composting to reduce organic waste.

What takes the longest to break down in a landfill?

Items like glass bottles, aluminum cans and plastic bottles take a longer time to break down in a landfill.

Ending Words

Since there is no proper method to recycle a large number of waste items, they have to be thrown to the landfills. However, the time a large number of waste products take to decompose is very enormous.

This is the reason it takes so long for the garbage in a landfill to break down. It is advised to use alternative eco-friendly methods of disposing of waste in order to have less waste in the landfills.

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