How Long Does Rubbish Last? Our Landfill Legacy

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How Long Does Rubbish Last?  Our Landfill Legacy


This activity helps young environmentalists understand the long term impact of the things we throw away and the importance of recycling where possible.

We all know we shouldn't litter... "put it in a bin"... both out and about and in our own homes, rubbish belongs in the right place, not strewn recklessly in our environment.  But how often do we think about what happens to all of the massive amounts of rubbish created by billions of people, all over the globe, once it leaves the bin?

Out of sight, out of mind... but not out of being reason for concern.  Most rubbish ends up in our landfills, or even polluting our oceans and waterways, for a very long time to come.

To get the most out of this activity, collect the items on the following list.  It can be undertaken by just using the list, but having the actual items makes more of an impact.


•  paper bag
•  plastic jug
•  cigarette butt
•  glass bottle or jar
•  banana
•  aluminium can (soft drink can)
•  leather boot or shoe
•  plastic 6-pack rings
•  Styrofoam cup
•  cotton pillowcase
•  rubber sole of the leather boot (above)
•  wool sock or scarf
•  tin can (e.g. baked beans or soup can)

discarded rubbish

Have a good look and feel of these items.

Create a list of them in the order in which you think they will break down in the landfill.

Don't look at the answers below until you have finished making your list!

Now it's time to compare your list with what scientists have predicted.
Check out the list below.

•  banana
•  paper bag
•  cotton pillowcase
•  wool sock or scarf
•  cigarette butt
•  leather boot or shoe
•  rubber sole of the boot
•  tin can
•  aluminium can
•  plastic 6-pack rings
•  plastic jug
•  Styrofoam cup
•  glass bottle or jar

Ok... so how close were you?  Did anything surprise you?

Next see if you can predict approximately how long each item may take to break down.

Once again, don't cheat and look at the answers below until you have finished!

Here is the list with predications made by scientists, for the rate of break down.

•  banana - 3 to 4 weeks
•  paper bag - 1 month
•  cotton pillowcase - 5 months
•  wool sock - 1 year
•  cigarette butt - 2 to 5 years
•  leather boot - 40 to 50 years
•  rubber sole - 50 to 80 years
•  tin can - 80 to 100 years
•  aluminium can - 200 to 500 years
•  plastic 6-pack rings - 450 years
•  plastic jug - 1 million years
•  Styrofoam cup - unknown? forever?
•  glass bottle - unknown? forever?

Styrofoam cups may last forever
Wow!  Maybe forever for the styrofoam cup and glass bottle?!  1 million years for the plastic jug!

Did these results surprise you?  How close were your estimations?

Have another look at the items.  How many of them can be recycled?  Probably most of them!  Not only is recycling financially cheaper in most cases than making items from new raw materials, but it saves the planet great environmental expense too!  

Does this activity give you some idea of the importance of recycling?  And also the importance of trying to use less throwaway materials to begin with, in the way of packaging especially?

What plans can you make to reduce, reuse and recycle?

  • Cash in aluminium cans (where deposit applies) or recycle aluminium and tin cans
  • Take any other scrap metal to metal scrap yards
  • Recycle any recyclable plastics- check the number for suitability for recycling in your area
  • Recycle glass
  • Use old cotton or other suitable fabrics as rags before discarding
  • Use old towels, bedding, broken electric blankets (remove wires) as pet bedding or donate to shelters
  • Compost suitable organic waste, use in worm farms, or feed to rabbits, chickens etc. if suitable.
  • Use items for crafts etc.
  • Give good condition items a new home through friends, family, Freecycle or thrift shops
  • Buy loose items or items with minimal packaging.  Refill your own containers.
  • Use your own bags when shopping

Reduce, re-use, recycle

What other inventive ways can you come up with to give things another "cycle" rather than letting them end up in landfill?

See our article '33 Tips For Re-Using Stuff Around Your Home' for some more ideas.

Get others enthusiastic about recycling too!  Involve your family, your friends, your school or club!  Have challenges to see who can recycle the most!  See if you can reduce the actual rubbish you throw away every week!

Every item we don't send to the landfill makes a difference... it all adds up- immensely. 
This is one way we can all help to create a better future!


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