We don’t want to make biodegradable items our bugbear – as with everything, they have their place and time to shine. That said, we also want to highlight just how long it can take for different items that are classed as “biodegradable” to actually break down in landfill – it’s all too easy to toss something away as waste instead of putting it to another use or into a recycling bin, and we’re hoping that by adding exposure to how long a rubbish pile can actually sit in landfill for, this mentality will change.
It’s impossible to say exactly how long any one item will take to break down once in a landfill environment, as the decomposition process will vary depending on the surrounding conditions and whether air or water can even get to the items at the bottom of a large landfill pile. Items that are not exposed to the elements will take a lot longer to break down when compared to even identical items that are. Having said that, we can put estimates based on average studies performed on different types of items in varying conditions.
Common items that are sent to landfill when they could be reused or recycled:
Glass (jars/bottles) – 1 million years
If a glass jar or bottle is put out for recycling, it can be back out in the community within 6 weeks, as opposed to doing time in landfill for the next 1 million years!
Glass can be recycled endlessly and with no loss in purity or quality, so it has a huge range of uses, including new containers, as aggregate in concrete and even as astroturf.
Plastic (bottles/containers) – 40 years
Like glass, plastic bottles and other items can be recycled quickly and efficiently, becoming something new instead of sitting in a landfill slowly decomposing into the ground. Plastic can be recycled into many things, including upholstery, new plastic containers and even fleece jackets!
Aluminium (cans/tins) – 80 – 200 years
Aluminium does biodegrade relatively quickly when compared to materials like glass or plastic, but that doesn’t make it going into landfill any better when it can be reused and recycled with just a bit of care.
Aluminium is very easy to recycle and can then be reused in a huge number of ways, including as new containers, into computer components, aircraft components and even into wire.
Batteries – 100 – 1 million years
Imagine if your average AA battery lasted as long as the 100 – 1 million (what!) or so years it takes to decompose! Batteries are made up of plastic, metal and inner chemical elements, so all of these need to be exposed to the elements before they break down; the outer casing elements may rot quite quickly but the chemicals inside can take thousands to hundreds of years to fully decompose (and that doesn’t factor in how harmful it is to the environment to have chemicals such as mercury and acid leaching into the soil).21
All household batteries (including watch batteries and laptop batteries) can be easily recycled and there are many collection points across the country; there are also designated collection points for leisure/car batteries. It’s also worth exploring solar or rechargeable alternatives.
Not everything can be recycled or reused, we know that, but it’s always worth exploring more sustainable alternatives where possible, to try and reduce the amount of waste that goes to our landfill sites every year.
For further information on your local recycling points for items such as batteries, glass, metal and foil, please visit Recycle Now to check their Recycling Locator.
Everyday items that must be sent to landfill:
Disposable nappies – 450 years
- Why: the majority of disposable nappies are made from polypropylene and SAP, an absorbent polymer which works to contain the contents of the nappy. More plastic is used in the bottom layer and leg areas. Whilst individual components of nappies can be recycled, as a whole they cannot, especially as they are soiled when they are thrown away.
- Alternatives: Reusable cloth nappies; some modern makes now also come with disposable liners which make it easier for parents and carers to deal with soiled nappies. These are often made from paper and can be composted or recycled (wet liners only).
Broken plastic bags – 1000 years
- Why: If a plastic bag is ripped then it is no longer usable, so even if it has been reused in the past, its lifetime has come to an end. They are hard to recycle even if they are made from recyclable plastic as they can jam in the machinery at a recycling plant.
- Alternatives: Paper bags are a great alternative to using plastic in the first place, but if you find these don’t meet your need, then reusable, stronger carriers are a good idea. They tend to be much more durable and can be recycled when their lifetime is through.
Soiled yoghurt lids – 500-1000 years (plastic) / 500 years (aluminium)
- Why: Most (not all) recycling facilities will not accept products soiled with food, and nor will they clean it – soiled yoghurt lids, regardless of material, will go to landfill. Yoghurt lids in particular can also cause problems with machinery, as they are thin and flexible and can get stuck.
- Alternatives: You can look to only buy yoghurts with aluminium lids, which are more easily recyclable than plastic lids. You can also make sure you clean them before putting into the recycling pile, and if you have several, clump them together as a ball so they do not pose the risk of breaking the machinery.
Clingfilm – 500 years
- Why: Most makes of this stretchy plastic film are made from PVC and it is generally soiled with food products once used (also rendering it hard to reuse). Down to the stretchy, thin nature of the product, it is also likely to jam in recycling machinery and cause issues with the recycling process, so it is sent to landfill as standard.
- Alternatives: Food products can be placed into reusable lunchboxes or bags instead of clingfilm. It is possible to buy tin covers for opened cans of food that need to be airtight. If used to cover food for a buffet (such as trays of sandwiches), consider investing in reusable buffet containers.
Used sticky tape – 500 – 1000 years
- Why: Sticky tape is made from a few materials, designed into layers, including cellophane and rubber-based adhesive which is typically a long polymer chain. It is not recyclable as there are synthetic chemicals involved with its construction. In addition, the flexibility of the tape makes it hard to move through recycling machinery.
- Alternatives: There are a number of sticky tape manufacturers who have moved towards products with no silicone or solvents, making them recyclable. Alternatively, use a light glue such as Pritt Stick when wrapping presents, as this can be recycled along with recyclable wrapping paper as long as it’s not OTT.