How Long Does It Take Plastic To Break Down?

Are you a fan of sports? Whether you enjoy kicking a soccer ball, spiking a volleyball, throwing a football, or shooting a basketball, sports teach children valuable lessons about teamwork.

Sports also provide a great way to exercise and improve physical fitness. After a long practice or a challenging game, your muscles may feel tired. It is important to refuel your body with healthy food, plenty of rest, and hydrating liquids.

When you have a strong thirst, nothing beats drinking a refreshing bottle of water or a sports drink. But what do you do with the plastic bottle after you’re done?

Do you throw it in the trash? Or do you look for a recycling bin? Does it make a difference? Environmental experts would say that it definitely matters.

Why? Unlike organic materials such as food and paper, plastics made from petroleum do not break down quickly. Many sources estimate that it can take 500-1,000 years for plastic to decompose in a landfill.

The fact that plastic bottles don’t decompose quickly in landfills is a concern due to the high rate at which we use them. Recycling efforts certainly help, but many people still choose to throw plastic in the trash instead of recycling it.

The most common type of plastic used today is polyethylene, a petroleum-based polymer that does not biodegrade (microorganisms cannot break it down). Instead, this type of plastic decomposes as a result of exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, a process known as photodegradation.

There is some debate about how long this process takes. Some believe it takes hundreds of years. However, Japanese researchers in 2009 found that plastic in warm ocean waters can decompose in as little as a year.

While this may sound promising, they also noted that the plastic breaks down into substances that can be harmful to marine wildlife and humans. And a year is still longer than many other materials take to decompose.

For example, paper can decompose in a matter of weeks. Some foods may take a few months. The one material that may be even worse than plastic is glass, which can take millions of years to decompose — if it decomposes at all.

Of course, these statistics may not always hold true in the real world. In many landfills, processes are used to bury waste in ways that minimize odor problems. As a result, natural processes that could break down materials are interrupted or prevented altogether.

Scientists are actively working on addressing the issue of plastic waste. In recent years, two new types of biodegradable plastics have been developed: plant-based hydro-biodegradable plastic and petroleum-based oxo-biodegradable plastic. Some studies have shown that these new biodegradable plastics can decompose in as little as two to three months.

Give It a Try

Are you interested in learning more about plastics and recycling? Make sure to check out the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Have you ever wondered what happens to your trash after it’s picked up? Take the opportunity to ask an adult about the trash service you use and then reach out to that organization for more information on what happens to the trash once it leaves your house. Is there a landfill nearby? If so, consider visiting it to gain a better understanding of the process!
  • Are you currently recycling paper, plastic, and other materials at home? If not, why not start now? Get an adult’s help to research recycling options in your area. Find out what materials can be recycled and where they can be taken. Also, learn about the journey these materials go through after they are picked up for recycling.
  • Why not ask a family member or friend to take you on a field trip to your local grocery store? While you shop for groceries, pay attention to the different types of packaging used for various items. Compare the packaging between different brands and determine which ones are more environmentally-friendly. Take a look at the drink section and identify any non-recyclable packaging. Based on your family’s consumption, brainstorm ways to reduce the amount of plastic you use.

References

  • http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2007/06/will_my_plastic_bag_still_be_here_in_2507.html (accessed 27 Dec. 2018)
  • https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/how-long-does-it-take-for-plastics-to-biodegrade.htm (accessed 27 Dec. 2018)
  • https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033 (accessed 27 Dec. 2018)

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