Why Does it Take so Long for Garbage to Decompose?

George Scott, .

It is a widely known fact that not all trash breaks down at a uniform rate. A banana peel, for instance, may take a few days to decompose while a glass bottle will take over a million years.

There are a few factors at play, which determine how long a piece of waste takes to decompose.

The Type of Waste

Generally speaking, natural refuse will breakdown far quicker than manmade garbage. For many natural pieces of refuse – discarded fruit and vegetables, dead plants and animals, etc. – the decomposition period is a matter of days, weeks, or months.

Human constructions, like Styrofoam or glass bottles, take more than a million years to decompose, if at all.

The reason natural refuse decomposes so much quicker than constructed material is because of autolysis. Autolysis, or “self-digestion,” is the consumption of an organism by its own acids and enzymes. This is what speeds the decomposition process of living, or once living, organisms. Even paper will decompose over the period of a few months because it came from a tree.

Because unnatural items like Styrofoam and glass bottles contain no acids or enzymes, they do not undergo autolysis and therefore take much longer to breakdown.

The Size of the Waste

Though the size of a piece of garbage factors into its decomposition rate far less than the previously detailed variable, it does still have an impact.

For instance, an edition of Toronto Sun may degrade in a couple months, while a package of 500 pieces of computer paper would likely last much longer if kept in the same place.

The Place of its Disposal

An apple core, or for that matter a window pane, will breakdown much quicker if left in an open field than if stored in a landfill. For decomposition to properly occur, an item needs access to light, oxygen, and moisture. In landfills, these three things are not easy to come by for materials at the bottom of hulking piles.

In consequence, landfills function as embalming devices for lots of material, preserving them rather than helping to decompose them.

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George Scott

Recognized expert in the application of leading-edge organic recycling technologies, is the president and CEO of Scott Environmental Group Ltd. and Norterra Organics..

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