Peace, Love & Junk

Chapter 3: 26 Household Items That Don’t Disintegrate In Landfills

Chapter 3: 26 Household Items That Don’t Disintegrate In Landfills

We need to break the habit of throwing everything away.

We don’t actively see the amount of waste we create. We don’t see the impact our waste has on landfills and the surrounding environment, either. The United States creates over four pounds of waste per person per day, shamefully earning us the distinction of the country that generates the most waste. That's not something to be proud of.

We’re rapidly maxing out our landfills.

Corporate America is pushing everyone — businesses and individuals alike — to embrace greener practices. But it seems more like a polite suggestion than any meaningful pressure to change. Recycling is still not being actively practiced as landfills continue to fill up and we get closer to a full-on crisis. Even worse is that most people don’t consider donating to non-profits or charities as an option.

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There are approximately 3,000 active landfills and over 10,000 old landfills (either full or decommissioned) in the United States. But we're on track to run out of room in landfills within 18 years. It's easy to see why: the average person in the US creates around four pounds of waste per day.

We need to focus on recyclable and biodegradable items.

One solution to limiting our junk output is to focus on donating, recycling, reusing, and upcycling.

Donating is an easy solution for getting rid of your junk. Many donation centers will gladly take in lightly used items, anything from furniture to older appliances. We’ve donated mattresses, TV, desks, light fixtures, and even pianos.

Donating is also tied to a greater social good: helping others. You give your items a second home and allow someone else to benefit from them.

Another option is to buy and use products that are biodegradable. The EPA defines “biodegradable” as a substance that can be broken down by microorganisms. If these products end up in a landfill, they will at least break down over time instead of occupying more space.

But many common household items aren’t biodegradable.

Take a look at some of the most common household items and how long it takes for them to break down in a landfill:

  1. Plastic bottles

Time to decompose: 10-1,000 years

We take plastic for granted. From drinks to cleaning supplies, everything comes in a plastic bottle nowadays. While they are super convenient for our lifestyles, they’re a burden on landfills. Around 60 million plastic bottles end up in landfills every day.

  1. Glass bottles

Time to decompose: Not biodegradable

A lot of liquids are still packaged in glass bottles — if these don’t get recycled, they’ll sit in landfills forever. The EPA estimated that approximately seven million tons of municipal solid waste glass entered landfills in 2015, accounting for over 5 percent of the total amount in landfills. Glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be used repeatedly to make new products.

  1. Styrofoam

Time to decompose: Not biodegradable

Although Styrofoam is a versatile material for packaging, food storage, insulation, and beyond, it’s a big contributor to landfill waste. Styrofoam makes up approximately 30 percent of landfills.

  1. Aluminum cans

Time to decompose: 80-200 years

For something that is so easily recyclable, aluminum cans often find a final resting place in landfills. Whether it’s due to a lack of education or recycling resources is anyone’s guess. Americans throw away more than $700 million worth of aluminum cans every year.

  1. Tin cans

Time to decompose: 50 years

We count on tin cans to hold many preserved items, from soups to vegetables to tuna. They’re durable and don’t easily corrode — yet this is exactly what makes them bad for landfills and the environment.

  1. Aluminum foil

Time to decompose: 400 years

Although it’s a staple in most kitchen cabinets, tin foil doesn’t decompose. Over 75 percent of all aluminum foil produced in the United States is used for food packaging, and much of that ends up the local landfills. Tinfoil is not recyclable because it is often contaminated with food waste.

  1. Six-pack soda rings

Time to decompose: 4 months

Although soda consumption has decreased due to its long-term health effects, six pack soda rings have not. Their convenience outweighs the long term impact for consumers. The EPA established in 1994 that all six-pack soda rings must be degradable on some level. Manufacturers now make them degrade when exposed to light, but this doesn’t account for when they’re buried deep in landfills.

  1. Plastic straws

Time to decompose: 500 years

They’ve always been doing more harm than good, even before the popular turtle video made the rounds on social media. Most fast food establishments use plastic straws, and this makes them more susceptible to finding their way into the environment. Straws also can’t be recycled.

  1. Plastic wrap

Time to decompose: 1,000 years

It helps us preserve leftovers, but it doesn’t help the environment. Plastic wrap consists of PVC and other manmade materials. While it helps us keep food fresh, it hurts the environment when it ends up in a landfill. More companies create plastic wrap out of low-density polyethylene, which can be recycled in certain places.

  1. Ziploc bags

Time to decompose: 1,000 years

The average American household uses 500 Ziploc bags every year. They preserve and store our food, but disposing of them is where things get tricky. Most recycling centers don’t accept Ziploc bags, and if they contain any food residue or waste they can’t be recycled either.

  1. Plastic bags

Time to decompose: 1,000 years

A number of cities across the country have banned plastic bags or have started charging a fee to purchase a plastic bag. Reusable bags are taking their place and they’re bringing a cleaner environment along with them.

  1. Nylon

Time to decompose: 30-40 years

Most of the items we use contain some form of nylon — it’s found in rope, stockings, packaging, and even toothbrushes. Nylon is a synthetic fabric, which means it doesn’t easily break down. It also causes a lot of harm to the environment during production: it produces nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

  1. Cotton clothing/thread

Time to decompose: 5 months

If you own a 100 percent cotton item (like an undershirt) it will decompose in less than a quarter of a year. But if the shirt is a blend of different fibers, it’s tougher to break down. Mixed fabrics can take between 20 and 200 years to fully biodegrade.

  1. Leather shoes

Time to decompose: 25-40 years

Though comfortable and stylish, leather shoes don’t do well in landfills. Leather is often tanned, and these chemicals keep the shoes together for longer periods of time and make them tougher to break down.

  1. Wool clothing

Time to decompose: 1-5 years

Despite its ability to keep us warm, wool is too cool for landfills. If you’re stuck on wool, try to purchase organic clothing to eliminate your impact on the environment.

  1. Disposable diapers

Time to decompose: 250-500 years

Any new parent can tell you that the cost of keeping their newborn in diapers is huge. But there’s also a huge cost to the environment, too. An estimated 20 billion disposable diapers end up in landfills throughout the country each year.

  1. Sanitary pads

Time to decompose: 250-500 years

They’re a necessity, but they also contribute to landfill growth because they don’t break down easily — almost all sanitary pads contain plastic. It’s crazy to think that sanitary pads and other feminine hygiene products generate more than 200,000 tons of waste per year.

  1. Plastic-coated milk cartons

Time to decompose: 5 years

A layer of polyethylene plastic (and possibly some aluminum) insulates these containers. As of 2015, they contributed to 78 million tons of packaging waste in US landfills.

  1. Cigarette butts

Time to decompose: 10-12 years

It’s no secret that smoking is bad for your health. Cigarettes contain around 600 different ingredients ranging from acetone to tar, so it shouldn’t be surprising that these are also bad for the environment. They’re not just a problem for landfills: they’re the single biggest contaminant of the world’s oceans.

  1. Rubber shoe soles

Time to decompose: 50-80 years

What happens to your old worn-out shoes? If they’ve taken a beating, you’re likely sending them off to the landfill. Even though they’ve treated you well, they’re going to be trouble for the environment. Synthetic rubber is derived from crude oil, and these chemicals negatively impact the environment.

  1. Batteries

Time to decompose: 100 years

There are still some products that run solely on battery power. Think smoke detectors, flashlights, TV remotes, and more. What happens when those batteries become duds? Most people throw them out, but batteries make up 20% of the household hazardous materials in America's landfills.

  1. Light bulbs

Time to decompose: Not biodegradable

It’s estimated that 670 million fluorescent light bulbs are placed into our environment annually in the United States. Throwing them away can introduce mercury back into the environment, contaminating soil and water. They’re also hazardous to people and animals if they break. Instead of throwing them away, look for local retailers and collection centers that will take burnt out bulbs.

  1. Ink cartridges

Time to decompose: 450-1,000 years

Printers are so affordable that most homes have one, and small businesses definitely have one or two. But the ink cartridges inside them aren’t affordable, and they seem to have a short lifespan. Most people choose to buy a new cartridge and don’t refill them, tossing the old one out. More than 375 million empty ink and toner cartridges are thrown out every year.

  1. Scrap metal

Time to decompose: Up to 500 years

Although most metals are derived from ore, no metal should end up back in the earth via a landfill. The amount of time it takes to decompose will truly depend on the type of metal, but it's much more useful to recycle this metal and repurpose it into something new.

  1. Painted/treated wood

Time to decompose: 13 years

Worn wooden patio furniture and indoor furniture treated with chemicals can’t be recycled. Yet when they end up in a landfill, the toxic chemicals used to treat the wood can seep out into the surrounding soil.

  1. Tires

Time to decompose: 50-80 years

Tires only contain a small percentage of natural rubber. The rest is composed of different synthetic materials, all of which are bad for the environment. At present, 11 percent of tires are dumped into landfills.

There’s much more that ends up in landfills.

The above list is only a small sampling of what our landfills contain. It doesn’t even consider “e-waste,” electronic products that are no longer usable.

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Many people dispose of their old computer or broken TV at the local landfill because it’s tough to recycle them. Although they contain different types of materials that can be recycled and reused, most appliances end up in landfills. Even worse are illegal landfills, which hold more than 40 percent of the waste worldwide. When these products go into a landfill, they tend to leak toxic chemicals like lead or mercury into the surrounding soil.

The Junkluggers offers specialty e-waste recycling to help customers get rid of old computers, printers, monitors, and mobile phones. When we donate and recycle these items, it increases access to reusable and refurbished equipment for those who need it.

Bulky items like furniture also find a final resting place in landfills because they’re made from materials that aren’t recyclable. Most furniture, for instance, contains treated wood that can’t be recycled. It takes this type of wood years to decompose, and any synthetic fabrics from covers or cushions also take a long time to break down. A polyurethane seat cushion will take up to 1,000 years to decompose.

We need to get serious about donating, recycling, and repurposing.

You might see something as trash, but oftentimes someone else can reuse that item. Donating is an important option to consider, especially with larger items like furniture or appliances. It’s a feel-good way to make an impact on the environment and your local community. Many local charities are happy to take clothes, mattresses, appliances, building supplies, and lightly used furniture off your hands.

The Junkluggers actively donates, but we also take repurposing into consideration as well. We built our own store called “Remix Market” for this exact purpose. If a damaged piece of furniture can’t find a new home, we’ll fix it and sell it at a reasonable price. It’s one of the ways that we do our part to keep junk out of landfills.

Recycling is also important, but it certainly isn’t easy. Verifying the correct recycling number on the bottom of a container, washing them out, and constantly wondering if something is recyclable makes this environment-saving measure a chore. Most people just toss things away instead of taking the extra time to thoughtfully recycle.

Although we are creating more eco-friendly groups and communities to focus on sustainable living, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The first step toward all of this is more rigorous education. By being more conscious of what we throw away, we can keep landfill use down to a minimum.

Check Out Chapter 1: The Typical Junk Journey

Check Out Chapter 2: Everything You Need To Know About Landfills

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