How Does Plastic Biodegrade?

Over time, if left unattended, plastic bottles, carrier bags, and other plastic packaging will naturally break down. 

There are numerous ways this can happen — it could be a result of heat and sunlight, friction, oxidation, or even animals ingesting plastic. But either way, the plastic breakdown process begins here, but goes on forever.

It’s difficult to say whether plastic ever fully breaks down — the process continues and continues until you can no longer see the plastic pieces. But they are still there — it even rains small plastic particles.

You may be wondering: Why does plastic biodegradation matter? Well, this blog post will answer this question in more detail, covering everything you need to know about plastic breakdown.

The lifespan of a plastic bottle 

To demonstrate how plastic breaks down over time, think of a plastic bottle.

Let’s say you buy it from a shop, you drink the water, and then instead of recycling the bottle, you either throw it in the trash or accidentally leave it behind as trash somewhere. What happens next? How long does it take for plastic to biodegrade?

The plastic bottle is left and will begin to biodegrade — this can take up to 450 years in a landfill. But either way, the process has begun.

Once the bottle starts to biodegrade, whether a result of environmental factors or wildlife, you’ll notice the bottle begins to fade. Eventually, the bottle will be indistinguishable from grains of sand. The biodegradable process can be sped up dramatically in more intense environments or where wildlife is concerned.

What was once a plastic bottle is now several thousand pieces of microplastics. These microplastics break down further into nanoplastic, and so on… eventually becoming barely visible under a microscope.

Microplastics and nanoplastics have been found all over the world, from the most remote regions of the world, such as Antarctica, to the deepest places on earth — they are everywhere, and there’s very little we can do about them.

How harmful are micro and nanoplastics?

Current research indicates that micro and nanoplastics are harmful, but to what extent is still unknown.

We do know, however, that humans and other species ingest nanoplastics — these can spread through the body to the organs, including the brain. 

And let’s not forget the effect that plastic products, including plastic bags, water bottles, and packaging, has on wildlife. Not only do they break down the plastics, but it presents a choking hazard — by throwing away a plastic bottle or plastic pack rings, you’re potentially harming (or even killing) wildlife. Think of the turtles!

For now, we know that the consequences are not good, but it’s still too early to say what effect these nanoplastics actually have on the body. More research is needed but what can we do now to reduce the effects of plastic biodegrading?

So, what can we do?

As previously mentioned, there’s nothing we can do about the existing nanoplastics in the environment.

But there is plenty we can do to stop the situation from getting worse, not only potentially affecting humans and our health and our environment, but protecting wildlife and slowing climate change — more on this shortly.

Recycle plastic products

Unfortunately, plastic packaging and other products are everywhere. 

But there is something we can do — aim to recycle all plastic packaging and other products instead of throwing them in the trash. This allows them to be recycled instead of left in landfill where the situation only gets worse.

Choose reusable alternatives

Where possible, choose reusable alternatives to plastics. Instead of buying a plastic bag every time you go to the grocery store, bring a reusable bag with you. Rather than drinking out of a plastic bottle, buy a reusable water bottle or drink out of a glass.

And if you run a business, reduce plastic packaging to do your part for the environment. If not, encourage other businesses to make the change.

Remain up to date on the latest climate change news 

And finally, you should remain up to date with the latest on climate change and the best practices to follow at home. 

For example, there are new guidelines on what to do — and what not to do — when it comes to recycling.

Alongside keeping up to date yourself, inform others of the situation — if you visit a friend and discover a collection of plastic bags, politely let them know the effect that could be having on the environment.

It’s these little changes that compound into big results.