February 21

How long does it take for plastic to decompose?


how long does it take for plastic to decomposeEvery year, millions of tons of trash are thrown away across the globe. It is estimated that over 250 million tons of trash is produced each year in the US alone. Organic garbage such as food leftovers, plant and animal waste, and other similar items can usually decompose or biodegrade naturally. Inorganic waste, on the other hand, does not biodegrade naturally.

One of the most widely spread inorganic waste is plastic. Plastic, in theory, does degrade, but it takes literally centuries to do so. So exactly how long does it take for plastic to decompose?


What is inorganic waste?

Anything that does not contain organic compounds is known to be inorganic. In simpler terms, anything that can be found in, or is made from a mineral is known to be inorganic. There are numerous examples such as cans (made from tin or aluminum), glass (made from sand), and plastic (made from petroleum) that are considered as inorganic products, and when disposed of, are part of the inorganic waste that piles up in landfills and unfortunately often gets dumped into the ocean.


The problem with inorganic waste

Decomposition is a process where waste and dead material is broken down naturally by micro-organisms, who tear down the material at a microscopic level. As they continue to break down the substance, a chemical reaction takes place which slowly converts fragments being broken down into carbon dioxide, water, and simple sugars.

During the process, certain animals and insects such as worms help accelerate the decomposition process. The process is slow (and quite disgusting to be honest!) but it helps nourish the soil and remove trash from the planet naturally.

Inorganic waste, on the other hand, is much more complex as it is made from minerals such as fossil fuels and metals. The complex structure of the material is unknown to the micro-organisms responsible for breaking down organic matter, which is why they take so long to break down, and in many cases, don’t break down at all. So if you were to as how does it take for plastic to decompose, the answer would quite literally be centuries!


Plastic as an inorganic waste

Plastic is one of the most common wastes found anywhere on earth, and being an inorganic substance, it poses numerous threats to the environment. In fact, plastic bags are one of the main pollutants of the ocean and the cause of death for millions of marine animals and birds.

Plastic has been notorious for having a huge carbon footprint and therefore companies are looking to find more eco friendly alternatives such as bioplastic and biodegradable plastic. Plastic as an inorganic waste is singlehandedly responsible for filling up most of the world’s landfills, streets, oceans, and pretty much every public place you can think of.


Recycling plastic

Plastic is made from fossil fuels, more specifically petroleum. The petroleum is mixed with chemicals and dyes to form various types of plastic of different densities and flexibilities. To cater to the ever-growing concern of plastic, various plastic manufacturers have started using materials that allow certain types of plastics to become recyclable, therefore can be used to create other products once they have been disposed of.

In order to help companies and consumers distinguish between types of plastic, the manufacturers have assigned a numerical system to identify which type of plastic is more “eco friendly”. However, regardless of the reusability, plastic is still a huge pollutant, both on land and sea.


How long does it take for plastic to decompose?

Surprisingly, out of the millions of tons of plastic being used and discarded every year, only about 3 percent of the plastic waste actually reaches the landfills, whereas the rest simply roams around the streets. This is especially true in developing countries such as India, which hosts some of the most polluted cities in the world particularly due to plastic waste roaming in the streets in abundance.

However, as much as it may be difficult for plastic to decompose, it does eventually. So, how long does it take for plastic to decompose? According to WWF data, the decomposition of plastic may vary depending on the type of plastic. A single plastic bag can take around 20 years to decompose properly, whereas a plastic toothbrush may take up to 500 years to do so.

Either way, that’s a huge amount of time even for a plastic bag that weighs no more than a few grams. WWF predicts that about every piece of plastic manufactured around the globe still exists in some form today (which is a huge worry since millions of tons each year have been produced over the past several decades!).

Moreover, the decomposition of plastic is extremely complex, and in most cases pollutes the environment while doing so. Plastic bags (and other types of plastic) during their time in landfills and the oceans, go through a process known as photodegradation.

Photodegradation is the breaking down of material due to sunlight exposure, which in the case of plastic bags, is the breaking down of plastic into smaller microplastics. These microplastics are equally as dangerous as they may be mistaken for food by marine life and pollute the environment by releasing toxins into the air.

Although photodegradation is quite common in the oceans, photodegradation in landfills is rather limited. This is because plastic requires sunlight in order to photodegrade. As more plastic and other inorganic trash pile up over the previously thrown away plastic, they never photodegrade and continue to fill up landfills until being disposed of by incineration. A single plastic bag that may take around 20 years of continuous sunlight to decompose itself now has no way of breaking down.


How to address this problem?

Let’s get this straight: plastics in landfills and the oceans are bad news. If they photodegrade, they’re still breaking down into equally dangerous smaller pieces of plastic, and if they keep piling up in landfills, they would eventually need to be incinerated. A landfill is not built for material to decompose, but rather disposed of, and eventually the same will be the case with plastic. As plastic burns, it releases extremely high concentrations of toxic gases which is dangerous for the environment and its inhabitants.

So, in order to reduce the amount of plastic ending up in landfills and waterways, we must take action by reducing the amount of plastic we use in our homes and workplaces. One way to do that is to cut off the use of single-use plastic bags and start using more environmentally friendly alternatives available in the market. An example is biodegradable garbage bags, which are made from materials having a much lower carbon footprint (such as bamboo) and are becoming hugely popular among eco-conscious consumers in recent years.

Today, there are alternatives available for almost any type of non-reusable and reusable plastic available on the market and mass production has allowed companies and manufacturers to keep the costs low and affordable for the average consumer.

So, what’s your excuse for not switching to a more eco friendly lifestyle?


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