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How long it takes 50 common items to decompose

  • Cardboard: 2 months

    In the United States, at least 90% of all products are packaged in cardboard before they're shipped, but just 25% ever gets recycled. Aside from recycling, cardboard can be composted, used as garden mulch, or repurposed creatively as craft material or pet bedding. It breaks down fairly quickly when it's exposed, but tightly packed cardboard can endure for years.

  • Train tickets: 2 weeks

    Paper train tickets are made from a coated material that contains more than just paper. Countless millions of train tickets are printed every year, and virtually all of them are thrown away. People can contribute to a cleaner planet by hanging onto their tickets and recycling them at home.

  • Canvas: 1 year

    Highly durable and versatile, plain-woven canvas is used to make everything from painting surfaces and handbags to clothing and sails. Assuming it's not treated with chemicals, canvas will break down in about a year, but heavy canvas decomposes slower than light canvas.

  • Paper towels: 2–4 weeks

    In the U.S. alone, more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are consumed every year. Around 51,000 trees would be needed to replace the number of paper towels Americans burn through every single day. Switching to reusable cloth wipes will help lower that statistic.

  • Waxed milk cartons: 3 months

    Many recycling plants don't accept paper/plastic hybrid cartons, resulting in millions of tons of packaging waste being dumped in landfills every year. Waxed cartons, used to hold liquids like milk, have a lower packaging-to-product ratio, so they decompose more quickly than their non-waxed counterparts.

  • Non-waxed cartons: 5 years

    Like their waxed counterparts, non-waxed cartons often wind up on the trash heap because consumers believe—correctly or incorrectly depending on the municipality—that they can't be recycled. Since they require more materials to produce, non-waxed cartons can linger for five years before they decompose.

  • Disposable diapers: 500 years

    Disposable diapers can't be recycled for obvious reasons, and the average baby goes through up to 10,000 of them before being potty trained. The #3 most common consumer item found in landfills, disposable diapers represent 30% of all non-biodegradable waste. Each year, 27.4 billion single-use diapers—7.6 billion pounds of them—end up in landfills.

  • Rubber bands: up to 1 year

    Once thrown away, the sulfur in rubber bands begins to decay, and the rubber bands themselves will begin to break down. They'll generally be gone in a year, depending on the composition of the rubber, but rubber bands that are stretched break down much faster than those that are not.

  • Painted boards: 13 years

    Painted boards, like the kind that gets thrown away to replace a section of fence, can take more than a dozen years to decompose. The paint, however, can degrade much slower while also leaching hazardous toxins into the environment.

  • Lumber: 10–15 years

    Lumber is heavy and solid, and can take more than a decade to break down. Some lumber, like the kind that is used for outdoor applications, is treated with chemicals, which can slow the process of decay and bleed chemicals into the Earth.

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