Skip to main content

It’s been more than 35 years since beer makers stopped using the pull tabs that littered beaches and cut people’s feet, yet you might still come across one of these cans lying in the woods undergoing its slow process of decomposition.

old rusty pop top can

Of the estimated 50 billion pieces of litter on the ground in the U.S., 24 billion are along roadways and 26 billion are along waterways, according to a 2021 litter study by Keep America Beautiful. That’s equivalent to 152 items of litter for each U.S. resident. 

Most Americans understand that litter negatively affects the environment, waterways, property taxes, home values, tourism and businesses, quality of life, and the health and safety in their communities, according to the litter study. The study also found:

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

  • The single most littered item is cigarette butts, even though cigarette butt litter has declined dramatically since 2009.
  • Plastic films, both general use films and food-packaging films, such as candy wrappers or snack bags, represent the second and third most littered items in America.
  • There is twice as much litter from alcoholic beverage containers as from non-alcoholic beverage containers. Beer container litter is up 27% from 2009.
  • Beer containers and single-serve wine and liquor containers are among the most frequently littered items.

There are many products we buy every couple of years, every month, every week and every day—and a lot of them will take several lifetimes to decompose.

Many of these items are recyclable, or could simply be replaced by more sustainable options, yet they end up in landfills, where decomposition is even slower. One of the biggest waste products Americans send to landfills is food waste, and all of it could be commercially composted if municipalities had composting programs, but only about 12% of the U.S. population has access to municipal curbside composting.

Here’s how long some common items take to decompose in the environment: 

train ticket sh
2wax paper sh
3paper towels sh
4paper sh
5cardboard sh
7food banana peel sh
8food orange peel sh
9cotton gloves sh
10rope sh
11canvas sh
12plywood sh
13wool sh
14milk cartons sh
15cigarette butts beach sh
16painted boards old crosses sh
17lumber sh
18paper coffee cups starbucks sh
19Plastic wrap sh
20leather shoe sh
21nylon tent sh
22clothing sh
23fishing net sh
24rubber boot sh
25Batteries sh
26aluminum can sh
27plastic bag ban sh
28six pack rings sh
29Plastic bottles coke sh
30diapers sh
31sanitary pads sh
32fishing line sh
32Tires sh
33glass bottle pepsi chernobyl
34Styrofoam meat trays sh