Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Environment

Discover Data

Is trash immortal?

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Household refuse typically goes into a plastic bag, out to the curb, and into a garbage truck—never to be seen again. Or so it seems. Trash lives on long after it leaves the home. In fact, it may live too long.

Far too much household waste does not decompose, or it decays so slowly you might not notice. Some glass, plastic, and metal takes a century or more to break down, says the United Nations Environment Programme. Some materials take more than a millennium, some more than a millennium squared. Organic waste that should decompose quickly in landfills often does not because it is overly compacted or is in plastic bags that seal out oxygen and soil microbes.

The longest-lasting wastes are certain plastics, which seem to live forever. More plastics, though, are being made from cornstarch polymers, says biochemist Lawrence Wackett of the University of Minnesota. “They can tune the biodegradability to make it last six months or a year.”

How long does it take for some commonly used products to biodegrade?

Plastic soda bottles: Forever Glass bottles: 1 million years Batteries: 100 years Aluminum and tin cans: 50 to 100 years Plastic bags: 10 to 20 years Plastic-coated milk cartons: 5 years Orange peels: 6 months Paper: 2 to 5 months

2 Free Articles Left

Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Register or Log In