How Long Does it Really Take Plastic to Decompose?

Posted by Steve Reble on

How long Does it really take plastic to decompose?!

For 20 years I have avoided this question because I knew the answer would destroy my favourite post kayaking tradition - eating 100lbs of hand cut fries covered in squeeky Quebec cheese curds and smothered in thick, dark gravy.  If you’re not familiar this French Canadian delicacy is known as Poutine.

And it’s amazing.

And the absolute best Poutine is found at roadside chip trucks that serve said poutine in a plastic styrofoam container, with a plastic lid, in a plastic bag with a plastic fork and disposable napkin.

And when you’ve spent the 5 whole minutes it takes to eat this God given treat, the container, lid, bag and fork end up in an overflowing garbage can where it will be trucked to a landfill  - not a recycling plant - and sit and sit and sit for 100 years, 1,000 years… forever?

So you can understand why I didn’t really want to know how long it takes plastic to biodegrade because the truth would render this joyful activity a little less so - until... I couldn’t really avoid it (check out our story for more on my ‘awakening’).

But I figured if I could face the truth about plastic, you could too.

And here’s the thing - decomposition, compostability, biodegradability - is largely dependent on microbes, tiny organisms that are invisible to the naked eye.  Despite their teenie size, these guys play an enormous role in cleaning up our planet, but because plastic is made up of compounds that don’t naturally occur in nature, microbes turn their nose up at plastic, they simply won’t eat it.   

Plastic does not decompose... ever!

Which means, according to Popular Science, plastic does not decompose, biodegrade or compost, rather it just breaks down into smaller and smaller plastic pieces.

And this is why there are huge masses of plastic floating around our Oceans (some Scientists like Ellen MacArthur even believe that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish) and lakes, clogging our landfills and even leaching toxins into our water table.

Great, so microbes can’t eat plastic, therefore plastic is bad, right?


Ish you say?  What’s this ish… please explain.  

Well, you see, plastic’s inability to biodegrade is definitely problematic, but just how problematic depends on its use - and reuse - because the term plastic refers to everything from the steering wheel of your car to the grocery bag you used to drag home those delicious organic berries (and that 10 pound sack of cheesies).

In fact, some would argue that the plastic used in car manufacturing actually provides a net benefit to the environment because it is lighter than steel and makes cars more fuel efficient and therefore burns less fossil fuels.

Grocery bags, plastic wrap, sandwich bags, ziplock bags and produce bags are more troubling because they are typically used once - maybe twice - and then discarded, where - as previously established - they will wind up in a landfill or somewhere out in the wilderness where they will never biodegrade.  

And this begs the question that we - the consumers - must face.  Is the ease of use of plastics like grocery bags, styrofoam containers or disposable forks really worth the cost?  

Now you know that those single use plastics cannot decompose, what are you going to do about it?