Merriam-Webster defines “decompose” as “to separate into constituent parts or elements or into simpler compounds.” That happens to all living things after they pass on. But what about inanimate objects – the things we use every day? When do their components break down and drift off into the wind?
Paper waste and cardboard are the items that decompose the fastest among everyday things – two to six weeks for paper, two months for cardboard. Items such as aluminum foil, cans, plastic, glass, and disposable diapers stay around quite a while longer. (Here are 30 ways to be more environmentally friendly.)
Many things on our list take a century or longer to decompose. The rates of decomposition can vary greatly based on environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, and exposure to the elements. But these factors aside, it could take a tire a million years to break down – and aluminum foil is one of the substances that never decomposes.
No discussion of the decomposition (or lack of decomposition) of inorganic items would be complete without mentioning plastic. It has become such a litter problem that states such as Colorado, California, and New Jersey have banned single-use plastic bags. And discarded plastic six-pack holders are the bane of existence for sea creatures. The Plastic Free Turtles project operating in Uruguay, for instance, found that as many as 70% of the juvenile green turtles feeding in waters off of that South American nation have been ingesting plastic. (These are the countries that generate the most plastic waste.)
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