News & Updates

Skills Series: Trash Timeline

Guest - January 21, 2018

Galt, CA: Litter in the outdoors poses a threat to wildlife who may ingest the trash we leave behind. When litter breaks down it leeches chemicals into the surrounding environment, which negatively impacts nearby vegetation and could contaminate water sources. Even trash that is sometimes considered “natural or biodegradable” like banana peels, orange peels, and apple cores can be harmful to wildlife. Trash also creates a negative visitor experience for many of us.

Most trash takes a long time to decompose or break down which heightens the chances it can impact the places we love. In this Skills Series topic, we talk about the trash timeline, using research 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.

Remember, there are numerous factors that contribute to decomposition including: sunlight, oxygen, elevation, aspect, season, soil type, soil chemistry, moisture, the item itself that is decomposing, etc.

The point is, many of these items take much longer than we might think to decompose and we must dispose of waste properly anytime we are in the outdoors.

Orange or Banana Peel – Up to 2 Years. You may have heard that these items are natural and therefore O.K. to leave behind. However, leaving these food item can attract wildlife and bring them into close contact with humans. Ultimately, this could lead to habituation with food conditioning. We could be putting their lives at risk if these animals become aggressive when seeking food from humans. Food scraps thrown from cars onto the side of roadways may bring animals closer to vehicles where they can end up as road kill. Always pack these items out.

Cigarette Butts – 1 to 5 years. We find cigarette butts a lot, make sure you designate a pocket for your used cigarettes and pack them out when you see them.

Leather or Wool – 1 to 5 years. Leave your leather belt or wool socks behind? These items can take up to 1-5 Years to break down and decompose. Make sure you have all your personal items before leaving the area you’re visiting.

Food wrappers and plastic coated paper – 5 years. Food wrappers and other plastic coated paper take up to 5 years to decompose. These items are shiny and often attract wildlife to humans.

Tin Cans – 50 years.

Aluminum Cans – 80 to 100 years.

Disposable Diapers – 450 years. We love taking kids into the outdoors but their diapers don’t belong there. Disposable diapers may take up to 450 years to break down and decompose, yikes!

Monofilament Fishing Line – 600 years. We encourage anglers to pack out their monofilament fishing line, because it can last in our river systems for up to 600 years. Fishing line is also the of the leading sources of wildlife entanglement. Find a recycle unit on your favorite river or make one yourself.

Glass Bottles – 1 million years!

Plastic Bottles and Styrofoam – Studies Vary. Plastic bottles and Styrofoam are common items of litter found on public lands. Research numbers on their decomposition rates vary greatly, but both of these materials break into smaller and smaller pieces as they decompose. This poses a greater risk to wildlife who might mistake the pieces for food and fill their stomachs with trash. These items are also extremely difficult for clean-up volunteers to pick up and often end up in our oceans causing further harm. Ultimately plastic water bottles and Styrofoam items should be avoided in favor of reusable items.

Remember burning trash is not a healthy option, since it releases heavy toxins into the air, impacts the soil, and attracts wildlife to fire rings in our campsites.

Land Managers spend incredible amounts of time, resources, and money each year removing litter from the outdoors. You can help protect our public lands by packing out all trash.

Designate a trash pocket, carry a trash bag and gloves with you on your next outing, and teach your companions, others, and especially kids the importance of pack it in, pack it out.

Do the Trash Timeline Activity with kids or adults!

Enjoy Your World. Leave No Trace.

Donielle & Aaron

Leave No Trace’s Donielle Stevens and Aaron Hussmann are part of the 2018 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, REI, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Deuter, Thule, and Klean Kanteen.


USDA Forest Service Ranger Handbook – 126 Visitor Contact and Wilderness Education

South Carolina Sea Grant Consortium, South Carolina Department of Health & Environmental Control (DEHC)–Ocean and Coastal Resource Management, Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE)– Southeast and NOAA 2008

Let’s protect and enjoy our natural world together

Get the latest in Leave No Trace eNews in your inbox so you can stay informed and involved.