In 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycled and composted almost 87 million tons of this material. Our trash, or municipal solid waste (MSW), is comprised of various items Americans commonly throw away after being used. These include items such as packaging, food waste, grass clippings, furniture, computers, tires, and appliances. MSW does not include industrial, hazardous, or construction waste.
Paper and paperboard (cardboard) are the largest MSW generated, followed by yard trimmings and food waste. Plastics, metals, rubber, leather and textiles are next, followed by wood and glass.
While the number of U.S. landfills has steadily declined over the years, the average landfill size has increased. 1
How much time does it take for garbage to decompose in a landfill?
Paper/Cardboard is the number 1 item that is thrown away-more than 67 million tons is used in the U.S. every year. The decomposition rate of paper depends on what the paper was made of. It can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to decompose.
Plastic won’t begin to decompose in a landfill for at least 1,000 years. Americans use 4,000,000 plastic bottles each year. Only 25% of plastic is recycled. Using recycled plastic saves 88% of the cost to make a bottle. Plastic grocery bags can be recycled as garbage bags or taken to local stores to be reused.
Glass can take millions of years to decompose, if ever, in a landfill.
Aluminum/tin cans buried in a landfill take between 80 and 200 years to decompose. They are the most recycled product in the US and can be recycled numerous times. Recycling one can saves enough energy to power a TV for up to 2 or 3 hours or a light bulb for 20 hours.
Cigarette butts thrown out the window take 1 to 5 years to decompose. They are the #1 source of litter on our beaches. Cigarette butts also present a threat to wildlife who mistake them for food.
Food Waste is the single largest source of waste in the U.S. by weight. Time for decomposition varies depending on the food.
Disposable diapers take over 550 years to decompose in a landfill. Most diapers in use today are not biodegradable or eco-friendly. Over 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown away every year in the United States alone!
Styrofoam containers are very difficult to recycle. No one knows for sure how long it takes Styrofoam to decompose; however, scientists estimate it takes at least 1 million years.
1 Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States: Facts and Figures for 2012