MadSci Network: Environment

Re: How long do paper cups take to break down in a landfill?

Date: Sat Jun 26 17:29:39 2004
Posted By: Tony Gaglierd, Assistant Professor , Natural Science and Engineering Technology
Area of science: Environment
ID: 1087951460.En

Kelly asked how long do paper cups take to break down in a landfill? 

Kelley let me answer your question first and then discuss the Paper Vs 
Plastic issue.

Your Question is a question that does not have any one number assigned to 
it. Depending on moisture conditions in the landfill, a paper cup can 
decompose in 2-4 weeks in wet conditions or many years in dry conditions. 

The breakdown of waste is a function of time combined with moisture. I 
have seen newsprint that has been buried for 15 years dug up and still 
readable. Currently many of the landfills have the waste entombed, in a 
dry state (keeping the water out means less leachate to treat) this leads 
to the waste being mummified. 

Back to the paper cup vs. the Styrofoam. 

The actual material in Styrofoam is negligent. Most of the volume of the 
cup is air. If compressed before disposal or actually just leaving it 
alone, the cup will be under pressure during its trip to the dump. This 
will reduce the volume substantially. Well this argument is similar for 
paper cups, but they compress less than Styrofoam. 

Styrofoam is a petroleum product, paper is a wood product, wood is a truly 
renewable resource and the paper cup could also be made from post consumer 
recycled material. The paper cup would take between 5 -15 years to 
breakdown in a landfill. I don't know if Styrofoam will ever breakdown. 

The best answer:


When you’re done with the paper cups try shredding them and adding them to 
a compost pile or worm bin.

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