Tuesday November 26, 2013 | 08:38 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

We’ve all seen those charts telling us grimly how long various things take to rot away in the environment:

The Web is filled with these charts:

Trouble is, these charts are useless. 200 years for an aluminum can to decompose? I’ve seen year-old cans washed in that are well on their way to disappearing. It all depends on where they end up and what natural forces attack them.

What’s WAY worse about these “infographics” is that they give any time whatsoever for the breaking down of plastic.

50 years? 200 years? 600? 1000? Laughable.

We have no idea how long plastic litter will last in the environment.

Why? Because as of now we have no idea of anything in nature that is actually known to decompose plastic back to its building blocks.

  • An aluminum can exposed to the elements changes in time back to various aluminum oxides & hydroxides -- building blocks for much of the bedrock of earth. We know how this works, the mechanisms.
  • Steel rusts, as anyone can see with their own eyes. The iron oxides flake off, break apart, also returning to one of the key building blocks of the earth’s crust.
  • Organic products like paper are attacked by microbes, returning to compost & soils.
  • Glass is an amalgamation of naturally-occurring chemicals. When crushed or weathered by water, the soda & lime that make up glass are slowly drawn out, leaving silica. Decrystalized sand.

But plastics?

Plastics are a different story. Until a few generations ago, nature had never seen the chemical structures that make up plastics. It has no idea what to do with them.

Here’s what my research shows (if you have other info, please do share!):

  • There is -no- known chemical reaction in nature that takes a polyethylene (#2 or #4) bag or milk jug and turns it back into building blocks. (In 2008 a teenager in a science experiment found what he thought was a plastic-eating microbe. That experiment has never been successfully re-tested.)
  • There is no known chemical reaction in nature that takes polypropylene yogurt & butter tubs (#5 plastic) and turns them back into building blocks.
  • There is no known chemical reaction in nature that takes soda, juice, and water bottles or hard-plastic packaging (#1 plastic) and turns it back into building blocks.
  • There is no known chemical reaction in nature that takes vinyls (#3 plastics) or polystyrene toys and styrofoam containers (#6 plastics) and turns them back into building blocks. (A team in Japan in 2009 seemed to find #6 plastic breaking down in seawater - releasing toxins as it does. That experiment hasn’t been re-created.)

Plastic doesn’t react with anything. Acids in the air, water, and animal stomachs don’t affect it. Heating and freezing don’t affect it. Salts don’t affect it.

Plastic may get brittle & crack up. But it stays plastic.

Nature has no system for getting rid of plastic. No system. Nothing. It takes the intense fires of an incinerator to break it back apart.

So what does that mean?

Simple: Every last piece that is littered or accidentally lost -- or blows into the world thanks to earthquake, tsunami, hurricane, cyclone, or tornado -- is still there. It still exists.

Every piece of plastic being created today will exist & persist until it dies in an incinerator.

In a plastic world, there is no away.


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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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