Trash Timeline Activity

San Antonio, TX: As we travel through Texas this Fall we have noticed the Don’t Mess With Texas signs all over the highway and in parks. Don’t Mess with Texas is a well known saying, but most people outside of Texas don’t realize that it is actually a anti-littering campaign featured throughout the state. Teaching Texas youth the importance of their home state’s famous saying is simplified using the trash timeline.

The trash timeline teaches people of all ages how long litter lasts for if it is left on the ground out in park. The research behind this activity comes from a USDA Forest Service study that averages the amount of time it takes for trash to biodegrade, corrode, or photodegrade in a variety of environments from the desert, beach, forests, or alpine areas. This activity is an effective way to teach people the importance of packing out your trash and keeping the area you are traveling in pristine and beautiful for the next person hiking down the trail.


“Trash Timeline”

Audience: All ages. Groups of any size. With up to 22 people, each person can have an active part in this activity.

Time: 15-20 minutes.

Materials: 11 Pictures, some sheets of newsprint paper, a banana peel, a wool item (socks, cap, etc.), cigarette butt(s), disposable diaper(s), tin can(s), aluminum can(s), glass bottle(s), plastic holder(s) for a six-pack of soda cans, hard plastic items (water or juice bottles), a rubber tire, 11 printed cards or pages. Each page contains a single time period (e.g. 10-20 years), each page represents the number of years it takes for one of the pictured items to decompose

Leave No Trace Objective: To provide a visual and hands-on method exhibiting how long it takes for trash to decompose.

Directions: Distribute each of the pictures, one to each participant, or as many to each participant as necessary to distribute all of them, as evenly as possible. Distribute the time pages in a similar manner. Try to ensure that no person holds both a picture and its associated time page.

Then have the participants roam around trying to figure out what pictures match up with what time periods. As they make their matches, you can comment on their accuracy and have them try to correct any errors. See below for a list of the decomposition rates for common items:

Cigarette Butts------------------1 to 5 years

 Aluminum Can------------------80 to 100 years

Plastic 6-pack Holder----------100 years

Orange or Banana Peel---------Up to 2 years

Plastic Film Container----------20 to 30 years

Plastic Bags----------------------10 to 20 years

Glass Bottles---------------------1,000,000 years

Plastic Coated Paper------------5 years

Nylon Fabric---------------------30 to 40 years

Leather----------------------------1 to 5 years

Wool Socks----------------------1 to 5 years

Tin Cans--------------------------50 years

This activity gets the participants to talk to each other to figure out how long each item takes to decompose. When they finish, it would be nice to have them line up in order from shortest time to longest.

Thanks for reading and remember to be like the Center’s mascot Bigfoot and Leave No Trace.

Pat and TJ - Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer West Central Team

Leave No Trace’s Patrick and Theresa Beezley are part of the 2015 Subaru/Leave No Trace Traveling Trainer Program that provides free, mobile education to communities across the country. Proud partners of this program include Subaru of America, Deuter, Hi-Cone, REI, Smartwool, The North Face, and Yakima.