Watt Watchers of Texas: Texas is Too Good To Waste™

Activity: How Many Years to Disappear?

Grade Level:
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Activity Overview: Students may watch the garbage people come by and think that their waste magically disappears. Some may have been to the dump with a parent and some may have a compost pile or “dump” of their own on their land.

Organic products like food waste, cotton clothing, and paper break down quickly (usually within one year). Highly processed organic products such as processed timbers and leather may take several decades, but will still break down since they are made from basic natural compounds.

Aluminum cans can take up to 500 years to break down in a landfill, but are easily recycled and are collected in many towns. Glass can also be easily recycled in 8-10 weeks, but will take millions of years to break down and requires physical crushing to do so. Plastic bottles and foam plastic cups take millions of years to break down. These are made from polymers and petroleum products.

Time: 30 minutes for Activity One; 1 day research, plus 45 minutes to discuss Activity Two


  • Computer access or library books

Setting the stage:

Using a map of the area, show the students the location of your local landfill. Ask if anyone has ever been there and have someone share his or her experience with the class. Using the map again show them the location of the recycling center. Solicit stories or feelings about use of this location or curbside pickup.

Next, show the students a selection of products from the list below and have them talk about how the items are used and misused. Feel free to substitute other items in each category that your students may be in contact with each day.

Activity 1: Take a Guess

Fill out the chart by making educated guesses on how long it takes for these items to completely break down when buried. This can be done as a group activity on the board or as an individual activity.

 How Many Years to Disappear Worksheet

Object0–1 Year2–100 Years100–500 Years500–1,000 Years1,000–1,000,000 Years
Aluminum Soda Can
Apple Core
Cotton T-Shirt
Plastic Water Bottle
Cardboard Cereal Box
Leather Sandal
Wooden Toy Train
Glass Jar
Disposable Diaper
Foam Plastic Cup

Activity 2: Do Your Research

Have the students split into 10 small groups or pairs and have each group choose one item from the list to research. Using the websites listed in the resource section or books from your library, have them answer the discussion questions below. Have the students share their findings with the group and discuss ways they can throw away less of the materials that take the longest to break down.


  1. How long does your item take to break down?
  2. What factors are necessary for the decomposition of the item?
  3. Is your item recyclable?
  4. Is it easily recycled in our area?
  5. What percentage of this item is recycled each year?
  6. List some ways your family can throw away less of this item each year.


SCI.K.1A, SCI.1.1A, SCI.2.1A, SCI.3.1A, SCI.4.1A, SCI.5.1A, SCI.6.1A, SCI.7.1A, SCI.8.1A
SCI.K.1B, SCI.1.1B, SCI.2.1B, SCI.3.1B, SCI.4.1B, SCI.5.1B, SCI.6.1B, SCI.7.1B, SCI.8.1B
SCI.K.2A, SCI.1.2A, SCI.2.2A, SCI.3.2A, SCI.4.2A, SCI.5.2A, SCI.6.2A, SCI.7.2A, SCI.8.2A
SS.K.15A, SS.1.18A, SS.2.19A, SS.3.18A, SS.4.22C, SS.5.25C, SS.6.22C
SS.K.15B, SS.1.18B, SS.2.19B, SS.3.18B, SS.4.22D, SS.5.25D, SS.6.22D, SS.7.22D, SS.8.30D

Watt Watchers of Texas is a Partner Program of Smart Energy Education.
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