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How long does your trash last?



When you toss something in the trash, it doesn’t just disappear. That piece of garbage often gets sent to a landfill, where it’s supposed to decompose. When something decomposes that means it breaks down or decays. Things that come from nature, like apples or leaves, become compost or dirt when they decompose. Many things made by humans, like plastic or styrofoam, may turn into smaller and smaller bits, but never really go away completely. Let’s check out how long different things will be sticking around after they’ve been thrown out.

Apple core

Two apple cores


After you finish chomping, that apple core will take between one and six months to break down.

Orange peel

An orange peel


The peels are there to protect the fruit and they do a good job of it. Some environmental sources say the peel sticks around for two to five weeks, but some say it’s as long as two years.

Cigarette butt

A cigarette butt on the ground


Smoking is nasty for a lot of reasons and you can add long-lasting cigarette butts to the list. The ends that people toss on the ground can take between one to 12 years to decompose.

Plastic bag

A dolphin with a plastic bag on its fin

(Photo by Jedimentat44 licensed CC BY 2.0)

A plastic bag from the grocery store can last for 10 to 20 years! Over time, plastic eventually does break down into tiny pieces, but these pieces can end up in our waterways and be consumed by animals. However, some sources say it wouldn’t even break down that quickly and that it would actually take a million years. The reason the numbers vary is because plastic bags contain something called petrochemical products, which are made from petroleum, and they never truly break down. 

Styrofoam cup

Different sizes of styrofoam cups

(Photo by SOLO Estonia licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

Those white spongy cups are good for holding hot chocolate, but they also last for over 500 years in a landfill.

Rubber boots

Someone wearing rubber boots in a puddle

(Photo by Jane Smith licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

Your favourite rain boots can be with you for a long time — the soles can last 50 to 80 years after you toss them out.

Can you figure out what's trash and what's recycled? Take this quiz!

Aluminum can

A can discarded in nature


Once you finish your drink, that can should go right into the blue bin. If it doesn't, that aluminum can sticks around for anywhere between 80 and 200 years to as long as a million years! This is another item with a wide range of time and that's because no one has been alive long enough to watch a can breakdown.


A diaper


No one wants to keep a stinky diaper around for long, but once it's in the landfill, it will last for between 450 and 600 years.

Glass bottle

Glass bottles

(Photo by Randy Heinitz licensed CC BY 2.0)

Glass may break, but it doesn’t decompose, so if you don't put glass bottles in the recycling bin where they belong, they could last for a million years in the landfill! 

How to get rid of this long-lasting trash?

A water fountain

Try drinking from a water fountain instead of using a plastic bottle. (Pixabay)

The easiest way is to reduce the amount of stuff we use. Maybe drink from a water fountain instead of a plastic bottle. Or look for toys that don’t come with a lot plastic packaging that you’re going to throw out once they’re opened.

Someone packing a lunch in reusable containers

Do you bring your lunch in reusable containers like these ones? (Photo by Rubbermaid Products licensed CC BY 2.0)

Another way is to reuse things so that they don’t need to go into the trash. Like washing a jam jar and using it to store pencils. Or bringing your lunch in reusable containers. Old clothes and toys can be given away to be enjoyed by someone else.

A pair of sneakers

These sneakers are made of recycled plastics that came from the ocean. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

It’s also possible to recycle certain things. For instance, that million-year glass can be melted down and made into a new bottle. Same with aluminum cans. Plastic is a bit trickier because not every type can be recycled, but sometimes they can be pressed into new shapes to become playground equipment and sneakers. New kinds of plastics made out of corn or potato starch break down much faster. Hopefully we’ll all be able to stop the trash from piling up!