Biodegradable Rubbish: How Long Does Trash Really Take To Disappear?
The world is a very complex system of interlinked processes and organisms – which greatly helps with the waste management process worldwide. It it was not for biodegradable rubbish – our landfills would fill up even faster and sooner or later we would be running out of space completely!
In today’s blog – we do not want to talk about our production of waste and the very necessary need to reduce the volumes. Instead – we will get into the dirt and take a look at what is biodegradable rubbish and how it works.
We will also look at why recycling is so important for other waste and recycling streams for items such as plastics or glass – that take a very long time indeed to decompose.
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What is biodegradable rubbish?
To start with a definition – Biodegradation is the disintegration of materials by bacteria, fungi, or other biological means. The speed at which the material breaks down is dependent on the chemical composition of the material and also where it is kept – i.e. in the sea, in the open air etc.
When we talk about biodegradable rubbish – we are usually focused on items that will decompose in a short space of time – i.e. less than years. Nearly all products will eventually decompose. See the table below for estimates – in sea water:
|Product||Time to Biodegrade|
|Paper towel||2–4 weeks|
|Apple core||2 months|
|Cardboard box||2 months|
|Wax coated milk carton||3 months|
|Cotton gloves||1–5 months|
|Wool gloves||1 year|
|Painted wooden sticks||13 years|
|Plastic bags||10–20 years|
|Tin cans||50 years|
|Disposable diapers||50–100 years|
|Plastic bottle||100 years|
|Aluminium cans||200 years|
I think for common purposes – we would not regard anything as longer than one year to be bio-degradable.
Food can take longer to decompose than you may think!
If an apple falls from a tree – it will of course rot and decompose on the ground. However, some regular food items take quite a long time to break down.
“The time taken for food waste decomposing depends on the type of food. Normally, an orange peel takes 6 months but an apple core or a banana peel takes around one month to decompose. “
This of course should be taken into consideration for home composting or worm farms.
Focus on recycling – impact on environment
When we understand that items like plastic and metal take much longer to decompose – it is clear why we need to have recycling solutions for bottles, cans, glass etc. In nearly all cases – commingled recycling is a good option for these items.
Correct treatment and recycling prevents serious issues like ocean pollution.
One development you may have seen in the press is the idea of biodegradable plastics – such as for shopping bags.
The jury is still very much out on these bags – with some articles reporting that the bags simply disintegrate into small pieces – which remain as micro plastics and can be even harder to deal with!
“Compostable” is a term meaning that a plastic bag will decompose in defined as “able to decompose in aerobic environments that are maintained under specific controlled temperature and humidity conditions. Compostable means capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass at a rate consistent with known compostable materials. (ref: ASTM International D 6002).”
This is what you are looking for for your bags and plastic.
Landfill and gases
Whether landfill is always the worst option for waste is not an easy question. A we discussed above – a apple will fall from a tree and rot on the ground. It will also decompose of course in a landfill.
The issue with landfills is that scientists explain they often produce more noxious gases due to the waste being crushed together and insufficient oxygen.
This problem can be minimised or reduced by using gas capture – which is common in modern landfills. This uses the gas to create electricity and feed the power grid – saving on fossil fuels.
Biodegradable rubbish is not as easy to categorise as we might like. Things decompose faster than others – and some are very slow indeed – such as plastics.
Most of our focus should be on plastic (I believe) as they cause huge, long lasting damage to plant and sea life.
You should look out for the word compostable also when buying plastic bags or sustainable packaging.
See our blog on organic waste recycling and biogas.