Some people complain that recycling is time-consuming and sure enough lots of materials that could easily be recycled get thrown out in black bags and carted off to landfill because it’s the quick and easy option. Regardless, one would think that recycling materials are of greater value to all parties involved than the sheer disposal to landfills.
Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Recycling does of course take a extra little thought and time, but once organised it becomes a natural process and in terms of the environmental difference it makes, it is worth every additional second.
Once sent to landfill, different materials break down at different rates depending on their type and scale as well as the conditions in the amount of air, moisture and sunlight they will be exposed to during the process of decomposition. Natural materials may break down in a matter of a few weeks, whereas man made ones could take up to a million years to break down and decompose, if at all… Yup, a million years.
So let us look at some of the typical materials that wind up in black bags and the approximate time it takes them to break down:
This item is so small and absorbent looking; you may be surprised to learn that a cigarette butt can take anything from 2 – 5 years to decompose. This is due to their complex composition, containing many different ingredients and materials including a plastic called cellulose acetate, which is a material that slowly breaks down.
Plastic Shopping Bags
Some manufacturers are now making plastic bags that are designed to photo degrade, due to the worldwide environmental damaged caused by plastic bag waste. The majority of plastic bags however are made from materials that are derived from refined petroleum and take a long time to break down, particularly when placed in landfill conditions with no sunlight exposure to speed up the decomposition process.
Plastic bags can take anything from 200 – 1000 years to decompose in landfill. Even the photodegradable ones can take hundreds of years once buried.
This is a tricky one, to which there is no definitive answer. Some experts are of the opinion that eventually, after about a million years, this lightweight material would decompose in landfill conditions, whilst others argue that it would probably never decompose.
The plastic bottles we use for our beverages and mineral water contain polyethylene terephthalate, (PET), another material that is derived from petroleum. In a landfill environment a plastic bottle will take somewhere in the region of 450 years to break down.
These can take anywhere between 80 and 500 years to decompose in a landfill site, depending on the conditions. When you consider that the same material placed in a recycling bin for processing could be back on the shelves as a new can in as little as six weeks it seems bonkers that this easily recycled material should ever be disposed of in black bag rubbish.
The amount of time this natural waste takes to break down will depend on the quantity of microbes present, but it will typically take around 2 months to decompose in landfill conditions.
Well that certainly puts time into perspective! I wonder how much difference these estimated rates of decomposition for commonly used items would make to those who feel that recycling is either inconvenient or just too time consuming for them to get involved with? Spread the word the next time you see someone going for the easy option…