How long does it take for litter to decompose?

recycling on the go

Anti litter campaigners in the Forest Dean have realised that litter can stick around a lot longer than just a few weeks. During a clean up along the A48 they found crisp packets that were approximately 33 years old. This means they were thrown out of a car window roughly 1,716 weeks before, however the packets looked no more than a few days old. This is nothing in comparison to plastic bags and bottles, which could last hundreds, thousands or even millions of years without decomposing. Its not just man-made items either, banana skins can last over a month and orange peel can take up to 2 years to disintegrate.


Here’s a general guide to how long litter can last:


Two weeks:

Apple cores- these decompose fairly rapidly


A month:

Paper towels, paper bags, newspapers, and tissues. These items can vary depending how they are disposed of. Toilet paper on the ground takes longer to decompose than if exposed to the elements.


Six weeks:

Cereal boxes, paper bags, banana skins – can take far longer if the weather is cool as the skins are designed to protect the fruit so full of cellulose, the same material which cellophane wrappers are made from.


2-3 months:

Waxed milk and fruit juice cartons, these vary depending on carton thickness.


Six months:

Cotton clothing, paperback books. Cotton is the most biodegradable of all the textiles as it is made from plants.


One year:

Light woollen clothing – wool is a natural product and will rot when left outside


Two years:

Orange peel, plywood, cigarette ends. However some researchers believe cigarette ends can last over a decade.


Up to 5 years:

Heavy woollen clothing.


Ten to twenty years:

Some plastic bags although others can last over a 1000 years.


30-40 years:

Nylon items, disposable nappies although depending on their condition could last 500 years.


50 years:

Tin cans, car tyres, trainers, foam coffee cups, leather but chemically treated leather can last far longer.


75-80 years:

Crisp packets due to many packets being made from ‘metallised’ plastic film.


100 years:

Six pack plastic ring holder but these can last up to 450 years.


Around 200 years:

Aluminium drinks cans.


500 years:

Plastic bottles though petrochemical products like these never fully biodegrade and the chemicals just stay in the soil.


One to two millions years:

Glass jars and bottles but can last indefinitely as glass is made from silica, which is one of the most stable and enduring minerals on the planet.


Even longer…

Whilst batteries metal casing break down eventually the chemicals inside such as zinc, chloride, lead, mercury and Carmine endure in the ground and are toxic.



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