Americans are trashy people.

And by that, we mean this startling statistic: we produce 4.43 lbs of trash per day—EACH ONE OF US. That’s 250 million tons of trash PER YEAR created just by our own country, let alone the entire world.

So where does all that trash go? And how can we as individuals take steps to lower our consumption and, in turn, waste production?

We’re addressing some common Waste 101 questions as the second part of our recycling series on the Stoney Creek Farm blog. Be sure to check out our first post in the series: A Guide to the Real Rules of Recycling

What happens to our trash? The quick-take on landfills.

It’s easy to toss trash in a wastebasket without thinking twice about what exactly happens to that it afterward.

That piece of trash—if it doesn’t blow away from the dump truck and end up in a ditch on the side of the road— will end up in one of the 1900+ municipal landfills found within the United States.

The Conservation Law Foundation explains the landfill concept in these layman terms:

“To keep the waste dry and contained, landfill cells today are required to have two plastic liners, each backed with synthetic clay, putting a few inches between decomposing trash and the soil beneath it. Once the landfill cell is full, gravel, a flexible plastic cap, and some sod are then built on top of the cell.”

Of course, this is more of a lofty ideal than the real deal. Inevitably, despite these safeguards, rain and snow will get into the waste and leak out into surrounding soil.

You can only guess what’s in this water (known as “leachate”) that’s meandered its way through the waste pile—think of chemicals like “chloride, nitrogen, solvents, phenols, and heavy metals.”

Newer landfills are required to have certain perimeters in place to help keep leachate from leaking into surrounding soil. Still, no matter how many barriers are in place, this leachate has been proven to still make its way into groundwater, eventually draining into and contaminating surrounding bodies of water.

How long does it take for common household items to decompose in a landfill?

In America’s 1900+ municipal landfills can be found our annual dump of 250 million tons of trash.

Now what? What happens to all that waste?

You’d be surprised by how long certain items take to decompose in a landfill.

It’s not a pretty picture when you consider the amount of waste just one family produces each year—now consider the 7.53 billion people on this Earth, and it’s staggering to imagine the waste volume from the entire population!

Check out these decomposition times for some everyday objects:


  • Aluminum can: 80-200 years
  • Milk cartons: 5 years
  • Plastic bottles: 70-450 years
  • Plastic bag: 500-1000 years
  • Glass bottles: 1,000,000 years (yes… you read that number right! Glass is an easily recyclable material, but when thrown into landfills, it remains there for longer than our brains can comprehend!)
  • Tin can: 50 years
  • Tin foil: does not decompose!


  • Baby diapers: 250 – 500 years
  • Cotton: 1-5 months
  • Hairspray bottle: 200-500 years
  • Leather shoes: 25-40 years
  • Nylon clothes: 30-40 years
  • Thread: 3-4 months


  • Batteries: 100 years
  • Fishing line: 600 years
  • Paper waste: 2 – 6 weeks
  • Rope: 3-14 months

These numbers make it all the more pressing to daily consider how we are using resources in our own lives.

What are some steps you can take daily to reduce waste?

While these waste statistics may seem overwhelming, your personal decisions still make a huge difference in keeping our planet healthy! So where do you begin?

Start with food.

Food makes up the vast amount of America’s waste. But why is food ending up in landfills when so many of our neighbors are going hungry?

There are many organizations these days looking to address this problem by collecting excess food from farmers, gardeners, restaurants, and grocers.

For more details, read our post Sustainable Giving: Where to Donate Your Excess Food & Produce in Middle Tennessee. Even if you’re not local to TN, in the post we offer resources to where to find similar organizations in your area.

Reuse and repurpose.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”—but why can’t your trash be your treasure, too?! We are so quick to discard our used materials without considering how these materials can find new life!

Check out these 9 Ideas for Repurposing Common Household Items to find inspiration to reuse, rather than throw away, some everyday items in your home.


Recycling can be confusing—what do all those numbers on the bottom of plastic mean (keep reading for the answer!)? What items can actually be recycled? And where can you take the items?

Be sure to read our post A Guide to the Real Rules of Recycling for answers to all of these questions!

What do the numbers on the bottom of plastic containers mean? (A Bonus Recycling Tidbit)

You’ve probably seen it—you know, those mysterious numbers inside the recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers. You’ve probably guessed that it’s related to recycling, but what do these numbers mean, exactly?

These numbers, ranging from 1 – 7, were developed by the Society of Plastics Industry to delineate the specific type of plastic that was used.

Different types of plastic… well, what does that mean?

Not all plastic is the same.

Plastic is a curious material—a collection of molecules unique to each type of plastic that DO NOT mix together well when it comes to recycling.

So the numbers on the bottom of the containers help identify WHICH type of plastic was used and HOW it can be recycled.

Most everyday plastic items are numbers 1 – 2, and therefore the most widely accepted when it comes to recycling.

Click here to find a list of common items that pertain to each of the 7 plastic categories.

Be looking for the third post in our series, coming soon, where we’ll offer some tips for replacing single-use items (like plastic water bottles) with earth-friendly items in our everyday life!