Break it down: How long does trash take to degrade?

Life cycle of garbage

Here’s a list of some common garbage items and how long it takes for them to degrade in the environment.

¢ Disposable diapers: 450 years

¢ Rubber boot sole: 50 to 80 years

¢ Tin can: 50 years

¢ Leather: 50 years

¢ Nylon fabric: 30 to 40 years

¢ Plastic bag: 10 to 20 years

¢ Cigarette butt: one to five years

¢ Wool sock: one to five years

¢ Plywood: one to three years

¢ Waxed milk carton: three months

¢ Apple core: two months

¢ Newspaper: six weeks

¢ Orange or banana peel: two to five weeks

¢ Paper towel: two to four weeks

Sources: U.S. National Park Service; Mote Marine Lab; New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services.

It seems innocent enough.

Whiling away a spring day on the banks of the Kaw hoping to tangle with a flathead. You have all your necessities: a dozen plump nightcrawlers in a foam cup; a worn spool of fishing line; and six longneck bottles of your favorite cold beverage.

All right. You’re done now. You know this because the cold beverages are gone. You pack up everything – which, of course, does not include that flathead. The only thing your hook tangled with were the limbs of the tree behind you.

On your way out, you throw away the empty cup, the broken strand of fishing line (see the tree above) and the six glass bottles.

To environmentalists, your innocent fishing trip just got a lot less innocent.

The foam cup will take 50 years to decompose in a landfill, the monofilament fishing line will take a whopping 600 years, and the glass bottles from your favorite cold beverage – well, hope you really enjoyed it. Each bottle will take 1 million years to degrade.

As the 38th annual Earth Day approaches – nationally it is Tuesday but locally it is celebrated Saturday – most everybody knows a few basics about what’s easy to recycle. Newspapers, cardboard, aluminum cans. You know, the usual suspects.

But when’s the last time you asked yourself this question: What do you absolutely, positively not want to throw away?

Well, the answer is plenty. But let’s go back to your cold beverage for a moment. Just thinking what you drink it from can be an environmental lesson in itself.

Tip one back and think about these thoughts from area environmental experts.

¢ Glass: The stakes are the highest here – at least in terms of time. Many lists that you find on the Internet show astronomical numbers for how long it takes for glass to degrade. The list we’re using – one posted by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services and developed largely by the U.S. National Park Service – puts the time at 1 million years. Charlie Sedlock, division manager for the local landfill run by Hamm Waste Services in Jefferson County, said he’s not sure that’s even long enough.

“You’re talking about silica,” Sedlock said. “It is basically sand. How long does a beach last?”

To make matters worse, glass isn’t the easiest to recycle. Few companies will recycle it.

“Glass can definitely be recycled, but it is kind of the problem child of all recyclables,” said Kathy Richardson, the city’s director of waste reduction and recycling operations.

Richardson and Sedlock said that’s because glass is heavy and difficult to transport, and the mixing of colored and clear glass can ruin the recycling process.

Despite the difficulties with glass, the Wal-Mart Community Recycling Center and several of the city’s five private curbside recycling operators accept glass bottles.

¢ Plastic: According to the Park Service list, the average plastic bottle takes 450 years to degrade. But that’s only if you throw it away. Recycling plastic is a snap, right?

Well, there’s certainly plenty of options in Lawrence. All five private curbside recyclers accept plastic bottles, and so do the Wal-Mart center and the 12th and Haskell Bargain Center.

But plastic bottles are a good lesson in how not all recycling is equal. The thing with plastic bottles – said Bill Franklin, a Prairie Village environmental consultant who does extensive work for the EPA and solid waste companies – is that when they are recycled, they aren’t turned back into plastic bottles. That’s because each time plastic is recycled, it loses a little bit of quality. Instead, it might get used to make plastic lumber or decking or, in all likelihood it, gets shipped to China to make some other type of secondary product, Franklin said.

¢ Cans: If you recycle an aluminum can, it likely can be recycled and turned back into another aluminum can.

Aluminum companies rely heavily on recycled material to help control costs, so they will pay you to bring in your aluminum. In Lawrence, the 12th and Haskell Bargain Center and Lonnie’s Recycling in North Lawrence both pay for aluminum. A nonprofit, Cans for the Community, also accepts donated aluminum at containers throughout the community. The organization takes the money from the aluminum and donates it to other local nonprofits.

If you do throw away your aluminum can, it is going to take about half the time to degrade in a landfill compared with a plastic bottle.

¢ The mug: Sedlock keeps a plastic water bottle at his desk and just refills it. Franklin said for sodas it may be better to buy a single two-liter bottle and use a ceramic mug instead of purchasing a dozen of the individual bottles.

Hmm. That’s an interesting concept. Perhaps there is a way to apply that with your favorite cold beverage.

A keg, you say. Yeah. I like the sound of that. Buy a keg. Save the world.

Finally, a green concept easy to embrace.