How Long Will plastic last?

How long does glass take to degrade?

Did you know that plastic was invented for conservation purposes? The idea was to find a material to replace ivory. To obtain it, thousands of elephants were killed to make, for example, billiard balls.

As plastic turned out to be much more resistant and stable, we humans became addicted to it. To this day, we have gone from producing just over one million tons in 1950 to more than 350 million tons today!

One of the most widely used plastics is polypropylene.  It consists of very long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms. It takes a lot of energy to form these bonds. Very strong bonds are generated, which cannot be broken by bacterial and animal enzymes.

Let’s think of alternatives to reduce our plastic consumption: Can you imagine a water bottle that instead of polluting you could even drink? Let’s prepare biodegradable and edible water containers!

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The problem is that this product is not always disposed of properly, so it often ends up on the streets, in landfills or floating in the oceans; in fact, of the estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic that humans have produced from the 1950s to today, the vast majority still resides in open-air landfills or in nature. More than half of all that plastic was produced after 2004, due to the boom in plastic use that began in the last decade.

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For example, plastic in the sea degrades into millions of microfragments that reach the bodies of marine animals, which are unable to distinguish them from food. In addition to the fact that their ingestion can atrophy their digestive system, some species such as seabirds or turtles tend to get entangled in plastic bags, which can cause their death by asphyxiation.

In these environments, plastics accumulate in areas known as ocean gyres, which are zones where winds create circular currents that absorb all floating waste. There are five of these in the world: North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. In the first three months of 2018 alone, up to 22 tons of marine debris were removed.

How plastic degrades

What does it depend on whether a waste decomposes sooner or later? Not all waste takes the same amount of time to decompose. The two most decisive factors are the composition of the material and the environmental conditions. In particular, plastic is one of the most resistant materials and therefore takes the longest time to disappear.

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This explains why decomposition in water is much slower than on land. In the sea, where the vast majority of waste ends up, it is washed down by waves and currents. Their impact accelerates decomposition, yes, but when these plastics reach the surface, they are covered with organic and inorganic matter, which reduces their exposure to the sun’s radiation.

What specific object did you think of when you asked yourself this question? Colored balloons are the plastic products that take the shortest time to degrade: about six months. If that sounds like a long time, wait until you hear about the next ones.

This is good news to prevent pollution of the seas. However, the environmental organization warns that the current quantities are so large that it is not enough to enact laws, but it is also important the individual responsibility of consumers.

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The production of plastic revolutionized all industrial sectors but today it has become an environmental problem that affects the sustainability of the planet. It is a functional, cheap and widespread material, but also polluting if it is not properly treated and recycled. Plastic bags, for example, take decades to disappear from the environment.

But it is not only on the European continent that efforts are being made to reduce plastic. In countries such as Argentina, a resolution was passed establishing that hypermarkets, supermarkets and self-service food and beverage outlets should not give out non-biodegradable plastic bags. The Uruguayan government, through its ‘Law on the sustainable use of plastic bags’ establishes several measures to discourage their use and promote their reuse and recycling.

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Could we live in the near future without plastic? “It seems very difficult. Now we would have to go the other way around to use materials with the fantastic characteristics that plastics have. We have enjoyed some advantages while looking the other way without seeing the negative impacts of plastic,” Arribas says.