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Could your packaging outlive mankind? Here’s the timeline revealing the slowest waste materials to decompose

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Published date: 27 September 2021

Imagine living in a world polluted by the litter of our ancestors. As horrible as this may sound, it’s a reality for our descendants.

To show the importance of using sustainable packaging solutions, we’ve created a timeline of how long different materials take to decompose, highlighting which ones are recyclable or have more eco-friendly alternatives.


(Click to enlarge.)

 Decomposition timeline for different packaging waste items from longest to shortest


How long does it take for glass to decompose?

Researchers say glass takes 1 million years to decompose (some even say glass doesn’t decompose at all!). To put this into perspective, 1 million years ago humans were just about crafting tools, making fire and fighting off sabre-tooth tigers.

While it might be overwhelming to think of glass bottles, packaging items and containers enduring forever, it’s reassuring to know such items are easily and 100% recyclable.


Plastic Coffee Pods

How long does it take for plastic coffee pods to decompose?

Your seemingly innocent morning coffee could be setting the planet back hundreds of years in terms of plastic waste. Plastic coffee pods take as much as 500 years to decompose.


29,000 coffee pods end up in landfill every minute. That means a year of coffee pod waste stacked up would be around 361,000 miles high — reaching further away than the Moon — and would still be there for the next 20 generations to see. Had the Tudors been able to build a plastic pod tower, it still would be around today.


Choose sustainable solutions like reusable stainless steel pods or compostable pods, which take under 2 months to break down, to reduce your environmental impact.


Water Bottles and Plastic Cups 

How long does a plastic bottle take to decompose?

Plastic water bottles and cups are perhaps one of the most common and problematic plastics. The 16 million plastic bottles that aren’t recycled in the UK every year each take around 450 years to decompose. If Shakespeare had used a plastic water bottle, it would still exist today!

Nowadays, there are plenty of reusable plastic drinking bottles for when you’re on the go, at the gym, going on a walk or just sitting at your desk. Switching to these options can prevent the worldwide production, use and potential waste of 500 billion plastic bottles per year. 


Plastic Straws 

How long does it take for plastic straws to decompose?

Think again before you order that fresh fruit smoothie with a straw: each plastic straw takes 200 years to perish. Switch to reusable straws made of bamboo or steel to avoid plastic straw use and waste. There are also plenty of compostable and biodegradable options on the market, which take between 2 weeks to 1 year to decompose depending on the material and how it’s disposed of.

Aluminium Cans 

How long does it take for aluminium to decompose?

Aluminium cans take around 80 to 100 years to fully decay, meaning a can your grandma sipped could still be around today (if they’d used them back then, that is.)

But fortunately, aluminium can be recycled endlessly, making it one of the most eco-friendly options provided you dispose of it properly via recycling.


Foam Plastic Cups 

How long does it take for plastic cups to decompose?

The type of plastic used for foam cups decays faster than many plastic counterparts, at 50 years. However, compostable plastics are still a better option which not only break down back into the earth, but they deteriorate faster too. These plastics take up to 3 months to compost. 


Takeaway Coffee Cups 

How long does it take for takeaway coffee cups to decompose?

It’s estimated that 7 million takeaway coffee cups are consumed each day in the UK, taking around 30 years to decompose each. By using a reusable lidded coffee cup when you’re out and about, you prevent these wasteful items from being used. There are now also compostable cup options available which take just 3 months to disintegrate back into soil, giving back to the ecosystem.

Plastic Bags and Bin Bags

How long does a plastic bag take to decompose?

The negative impact of bin bags and plastic bags can continue for 15 to 20 years until they decompose fully.

Supermarkets and retailers have responded by selling reusable tote bags to reduce the prevalence of plastic bags. Many also now sell biodegradable bags and bin bags, which break down in just 3 to 6 months.



How long does cardboard take to decompose?

It goes without saying that at Packaging Online we’re big fans of cardboard — not just for its versatility and practically, but its sustainability too. Cardboard is widely recycled and can decompose over a short 2 months.



How long does it take for paper to decompose?

Paper takes even less time to decompose than cardboard, at just 2 to 6 weeks. And like cardboard, paper is 100% recyclable.


Easily find sustainable packaging solutions

‘Comparing the longevity of plastics against more sustainable counterparts, like compostable materials, cardboard and paper, shows clearly the impact being more mindful about material usage and waste can have. This is something we’re 100% committed to at Packaging Online in order to hit our goal of total sustainability by 2025.

Already, over 90% of our products are made of materials that are recyclable or biodegradable. This includes boxes, paper bubble wrap, voidfill, paper tapes and more.’

- Tom Wood, General Manager at Packaging Online


Support the planet by switching to sustainable packaging — shop online today


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