How Long It Takes for Food Scraps to Decompose in a Backyard Pile
In the United States, it's estimated that consumers toss out 108 billion pounds of food instead of consuming it. According to Feeding America, that's about 130 billion meals, and as much as $408 billion worth of food simply tossed out. It's astonishing that this waste typically ends up in a landfill, where it breaks down over time.
What if those foods were placed, instead, in a backyard pile, creating compost for the plants in the backyard or creating fertilizer for the garden? Many food scraps for fruits and vegetables can easily break down in that pile, creating a dense, nutritious-rich soil that can help to foster new growth.
In a landfill, where there is limited to no oxygen as material builds up, it takes much longer for natural waste like this to break down. In a garden or backyard compost pile, that's much different.
How Long Does It Take?
Assuming that the conditions of these food products are all the same and that they are exposed to the same overall weather conditions, take a closer look at how long it takes many of the food products you may waste to break down.
Typical food waste
Food waste includes items brought into the home that are then tossed out. It takes 5 days to 1 month for most vegetables to break down. Here are some examples:
Whole fruits and vegetables, including squash, carrots, potatoes, berries, and melons: It takes about 2 weeks for whole items to break down, sometimes as long as a month.
Fruit and vegetable scraps, such as cores and peels: These take about 1 week to breakdown though hard seeds inside fruit take longer, sometimes a year to breakdown, such as a peach pit
Citrus fruits: The peels from oranges or other citrus take longer to breakdown as they are much thicker, usually allowing for up to 6 months to fully decompose
Nut shells: While nuts themselves break down over a period of a few weeks to a month or so, the shells from them take longer, even as long as three years, to fully compost.
Lettuce: Lettuce is unique in that it can break down quickly in the fridge but can take years to break down in nature. That's why it shouldn't be placed in most compost piles in the backyard.
Stalks, stems, and vines: These types of food waste products can take a long time to breakdown – up to 6 months in some cases, depending on how thick they are
Coffee grounds and tea: Though it can be very hard to see them, coffee grounds can take up to 3 months to decompose fully
Eggs: Eggshells, fully dried out first, take can up to 3 years to decompose fully though they start contributing to the nutrient mix soil within a year.
Food products take time to break down based on their thickness but also on the protective coatings added to them in nature. For example, a banana peel can take months to break down fully because of how thick the peel is. The same applies to the thick rind from an orange.
The backyard compost pile is not only for food waste but for other waste products as well. Specifically, it can be a good place for other types of organic matter like yard waste. Those who have waste from things like fallen trees and leaves from fall cleanup may be able to add these materials to their compost pile and wait for them to break down.
Consider a few examples of what to expect:
A whole tree: A tree that is not broken down but just falls can take over 50 years to fully break down, though the signs of breakdown tend to be the most significant in the first few years
Tree leaves: The leaves people rake up each fall and put into a composite pile also take a long time to break down but generally are fully decomposed between 6 months and a year.
Grass clippings: Grass clippings from the mower bag tend to take only a few weeks to breakdown
A big part of the breakdown with organic matter like this is how small the pieces are. Grass clippings break down much faster because they are chopped into very small pieces. Large trees, trunks, stumps, and other hard materials take decades to break down, often from the interior out.
Consider Recyclable Materials
By comparing how recyclable materials break down, it can be a bit easier to see just how important composting is when it is an available option. Take a look at some of the most common recyclable materials used in most homes.
Metals: It’s common for metal based items to be tossed in a landfill. But steel cans, aluminum materials, and other types of metals typically do not break down for a long time. Depending on the size, coverings and coatings, and condition, metals take 50 to 500 years to decompose when sitting in a landfill. Recycling them makes better sense.
Paper: Many people toss paper away, from ads to newspapers to books and magazines. Most paper takes between 2 and 6 weeks to decompose. However, it can also be recycled and reused up to 6 times before the fibers are too weak to be used again like this.
Electronics: Electronics are typically made with numerous components, including metals, plastics, and other hard substances. Some are toxic. It can take thousands of years for most plastics found in electronics to break down.
Plastics: Plastics, like electronics, typically have no real way to break down. They last for thousands of years in landfills, including water bottles.
Clothes: Clothing is another big item tossed into landfills. It can take clothing a long time to break down. The rubber sole of a shoe may take 50 to 80 years. Leather shoes take from 25 to 40 years to break down. Nylon fabrics take between 30 and 40 years, while lycra and polyester take over 500 years to break down.
These materials take a long time to breakdown typically. Yet, they can be reclaimed instead of placed in the landfill. In doing so, it is possible to make better use of those materials and keep them out of the landfill for generations.
What Does Not Decompose?
There are some materials used every day that are not likely to ever decompose. One of the most common is glass. There is no way for glass to break down quickly. A simple piece of glass can take a million or more years to decompose. That’s why all glass products should be recycled so that they are kept out of landfills and used as much as desired.
As noted, plastics take a long time. Some types of plastics and Styrofoam can take 500 years or longer to break down. Depending on the type, they can be recycled, though, sometimes as much as 9 times, creating the same type of functionality and durability as they do.
Composting Is an Easy Solution for Food Wastes and Organic Matter
For the average homeowner, one of the most important steps they can take is compost as much as they can. As noted, tossing foods waste into a landfill causes those products to be placed under tons of other material. This is compacted and pushed further and further into the ground. Yet, to break down, there is a need for oxygen, which helps not only to encourage decomposition but also helps to control bacteria development.
Whether you own a garden where you grow fruits and vegetables, grow flowers in garden pots around your yard, or just want to provide nourishment to your soils, a compost pile is the ideal way to do this. It's easier to create than many people think, too.
Composting does more than recycling. Here are some key things to remember:
Create a designated area for composting, such as a wooden barrel or another reclaimed and recycled container.
Place only organic waste and food waste into the compost bin. Never put animal products in here. Only place eggshells into it after they have fully dried out and exposed to air, so they are crumbly.
Toss product into the compost bin on an ongoing basis. It’s a good idea to use the same bin for numerous types of material, as this increases the nutrient types present.
Move it around often. Toss it around and mix it on a routine basis. The chemicals in the decomposition process help to support each other from one type of material to the next, aiding in the process of breaking materials down.
Use it freely throughout the garden or other areas. Introduce worms into it to help with speeding up the decomposition, too.
For those who wish to do more for the planet, start with reducing just how much you toss out in food waste. It’s always a good idea to simply use a compost bin like this on a routine basis, perhaps with a smaller container inside the home to help make collection easy. It’s an easy way for you to help the planet while also helping to support the growth of your plants right at home.
One of Alabama Sawyer's Noaway Countertop Compost Bins is a great way to start the process in your kitchen in a discreet and beautiful container.