How Long Does It Take- Plastic

Wood, grass and food scraps undergo a process known as biodegradation when they’re buried. They’re transformed by bacteria in the soil into other useful compounds. This doesn’t work with plastic and that’s why it’s not unreasonable to believe that plastic will never biodegrade. To decompose, plastic needs sunlight. This is called photodegradation and happens because UV rays strike plastic and then it breaks the bonds holding the long molecular chain together. Over time this will turn a big piece of plastic into lots of little pieces.  Research says it could take up to or more than a million years for this to happen.

This is a problem because most plastic never gets to see the light of day. Landfills are usually set up as one of two ways. Either the landfill is set up where trash is buried or where trash is piled up like a mountain.

Then there is the plastic that ends up in the ocean or another body of water. It gets all of the sunlight that it needs to break down and it can break down in as fast as a year, but the problem now is those little bits of plastic are toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A and PS oligomer.

Biodegradable plastics are somewhat better, but not really. There are two kinds, Polylactic Acid and Oxo-degradable plastic.

PLA is made from plant sugars. It does not use oil and it breaks down into water and carbon dioxide when exposed to bacteria. The good thing about this plastic is that it doesn’t use fossil fuels (plastic already takes up 200,000 barrels of oil a day in the United States) and it uses 65 percent less energy than producing regular plastic. The bad news is that it takes a controlled environment. Unless all oxygen is removed and temperatures reach at least 140 degrees for 10 consecutive days then the bacteria can’t do their work. In these conditions it will take as little as 90 days to decompose, but these are unrealistic expectations for lives in landfills. The plastic bags will stay around just as long as the other kind. The last problem is that they can’t be recycled.

Oxo-degradable plastics are by products of oil. They decompose in oxygen rich environments such as large industrial composting tanks, but not landfills.

Although it would not be unreasonable to say that totally ridding one’s life of plastic is impossible, there are some things that people can do to reduce their plastic use.

Try to reduce the number of things that you buy that are packaged in plastic. By a water filter instead of buy bottled water or use a reusable water bottle that you can reuse instead of a one use only bottle. This goes for many other things. Next time you go shopping look at the other options you have in that aisle.  Buy trash bags, detergent, bar soap, cereal, that come in boxes instead of another bag. Also check to see, usually on the bottom, what kind of plastic it is because you might be able to recycle. 1 and 2 plastics are the most likely plastics to be received by recycling centers.

Use reusable bags when you go shopping. At our house we have a trashcan under the sink that is the perfect size for grocery store type plastic bags, but if you don’t have that option bring cloth bags with you to the store or reuse the same plastic bag multiple times. Also, if it’s an option, you can ask for paper instead of plastic.

Use old/used paper or newspaper as packing for mailing packages instead of bubble wrap, air filled plastic or packing peanuts.

Use real dishes instead of plastic dishes.

Make compost for your scraps of food and after it decomposes put it back into the earth. This is great fertilizer for gardens, but you don’t need a garden to have a compost bin. Since my mom has started her compost we have cut our need for trash bags by almost half. That’s pretty good.


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