How Long Does it Really Take Plastic to Decompose?

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.

"Plastics don't biodegrade like organic matter, which means they can't be converted by living organisms into useful compounds for life. Instead, they photodegrade, a process by which photons from the sun's rays pulverize the plastic polymers until they are broken into individual molecules." (Popular Science)

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.  

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?

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Comments


  • I am old enough to remember when we didn’t use plastics so much. Things were packaged in paper and there were wooden utensils. Paper plates and trays for food. Wax paper was mostly used in the home kitchen to wrap things. There were even wax paper sandwich bags. We need to start to turn back to our old ways before we used plastic so much. Stores all used paper bags, even department stores. Start taking paper bags to all stores when you shop. Demand stores stop giving you plastic bags. All straws used to be paper. Ask for them again and use them in our homes. Just start being more aware and try to cut back when you can. Ask when something is being shipped to you if they are recyclables for packing materials. Cancel the order if they aren’t. Find somewhere who does to make your purchases. Everywhere you see the use of plastics start using your power as a consumer to stop purchasing and make yourself heard as to why you are doing this. Consumers have so much power if they will exercise it.

    Charlotte Davis on
  • I like that people have started to grow an environmental conscience, but the truth is I was one of the folks who built that bandwagon decades before the millennials started hopping aboard. When I was a kid, we didn’t buy single serving foods, disposable sandwich bags, and non stick cookware that you throw away after the finish wears off. Not because we were trying to save the sea turtles, but because we didn’t have enough money to throw it in the garbage can. People today are whining that they can’t live on $12/hr while paying $2.50/loaf for bread they could bake themselves for 50¢ and cheerfully throwing $1 or so into the trash with every “Mc lunch”. If it’s ever crossed your mind to save some of that apparently un-needed cash and spend it on something fun like a vacation or a new car, think about swapping out the triple packaged fast food for a ham sandwich packed in a beeswax food bag. Or grabbing a re-usable drinking straw and cup for your milkshake. Just because “Waste packaging” isn’t listed on your bill doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it. The environment isn’t the only reason to cut down on the throw-aways, and companies like Etee are making it easier than ever.

    Stanley on
  • Consumers have a voice. Ask your poutine truck owner/operator to use paper boats and wooden forks …. and don’t buy the poutine then or again until the packaging is changed. Don’t buy it, tell the producer …. don’t buy it, tell the producer … repeat.
    Cheers

    Suzanne on
  • Forget the anaerobic environment of landfills. In the oceans and their shorelines, many plastics DO DEGRADE and that is worse than not. It’s called: plastic photo-degradation – With prolonged exposure to sunlight, the ultraviolet causes a photochemical effect within the structure degrading the long chain polymer molecules. Combined with known bacteria that do feed on petrochemical polymers, the ultimate results are micro particles coated with biochemicals that are ingested by many marine organisms.

    Philip M Fortman on
  • This is a great article! It helped me a lot with my herbology class.

    Hermione Granger on


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