QUIZ: How long until it's gone? Test your knowledge of trash trivia

Find out how long common types of shoreline trash take to break down


If you've spent a Saturday morning at a cleanup on the Potomac River, you know firsthand the astonishing amount of trash we can collect in a few short hours. This year alone volunteers removed 11,005 pounds of trash from local shorelines. If not for our volunteers, that trash would have continued to flow downstream into the Chesapeake Bay and out into the ocean.

Many of the items we find at trash cleanups are disposable products: plastic bottles, aluminum cans, styrofoam containers. 

Just because we are done with something, doesn’t mean it is done with us.

So what happens to those items we miss? Take our quiz to find out how long it takes for some commonly used items to break down in a marine environment. 



These are becoming harder to come by since the styrofoam ban in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District took effect this year, but do you know how long the remaining styrofoam will take to decompose? Click the arrow on the right to find out.

Since it's a type of plastic, styrofoam creates many of same issues for wildlife and water quality that other forms of plastic do. But, because styrofoam is so absorbent, it can also absorb other pollutants, like pesticides, and leach them into the water as it disintegrates making it even more toxic.


Fishing Line

Nothing beats a beautiful spring morning spent fishing on the shores of the Potomac. But when a line accidentally gets tangled and is cut loose, how long does it stick around? Click the arrow on the right to find out.

Turns out, if Joan of Arc went fishing in the Potomac with modern fishing line, we may still be able to find it in the river today!


Plastic Bottles vs Glass Bottles

Spoiler Alert: One of these takes A LOT longer to breakdown but is still a better choice for our river. Click the arrow on the right to find out.

Don't panic. There's good news. Glass is infinitely recyclable, which means it can be used over and over again. Plastic can really only be recycled once before it is turned in to a form that can't be reused. 

Plastics are also toxic and break down into smaller and smaller pieces without actually disappearing. These microplastics are a serious threat to wildlife and water quality. They release chemicals into the water, are toxic to animals that eat them, and they can harm underwater vegetation and habitat. 


Aluminum Cans vs Tin Cans

Do you know which takes longer to breakdown? Click the arrow on the right to find out.

Encouragingly, aluminum is the most recycled material in the United States. When recycled, both tin and aluminum can be back in business in just a few months rather than in our waters for decades!


Cardboard Boxes

Every cat owner knows cardboard boxes are man’s greatest gift to feline kind. But how long does the box take to breakdown after Mr. Whiskers is done? Click the arrow on the right to find out.

Not too bad, but it'd be best to recycle that box, so it can be used again and again.


Disposable Diapers

Ten fingers, ten toes, and 10-14 diapers a day. Can you guess how long disposable diapers take to breakdown? Click the arrow on the right to find out.

What?! That's enough to make us all cry. Consider switching to cloth diapers and only using disposables sparingly or not at all.


The excitement of doing good. How long 'till it's gone?

The feeling you get giving back and protecting the Potomac is one that will never fade!

Potomac Conservancy volunteers give a few hours of their Saturday mornings to make a BIG difference for the Potomac. In fact, our volunteers have removed over 236,333 pounds of trash from the banks of our Nation’s River in recent years!

Join us at our next cleanup event to get your hands dirty for clean water and experience that feel-good moment for yourself. Your children’s children’s children’s children will thank you. 


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