Here's How Long It Takes Plastic Bottles To Completely Decompose

Belgueblimohammed2013 / Wikimedia Commons

James Felton 18/07/2017, 18:08

This article is sponsored by SodaStream, in support of their environmental initiative in plastic bottle reduction.

Plastic bottles take so long to decompose that if you really want to help the environment, you should probably stop using them as much as you possibly can. No more buying fizzy drinks at the store and then throwing away the bottle on your way home, it's incredibly bad for the planet.

At the moment over 100 billion plastic beverage bottles per year are sold in the US alone. A million bottles are being created every minute, the Guardian revealed in June, with around 20,000 bottles being sold every second.

According to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 5-13 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans every year. By 2050, the foundation say that the ocean will contain more plastic (by weight) than fish.

So how long will it take these bottles to disappear?

The answer is; between 70 and 450 years, depending on who is estimating. Plastic bottles were only invented in 1947, and were extremely expensive until the 1960s, when they began to gain popularity with manufacturers. That isn't long enough to know for sure how long bottles will take to decompose. 

So instead scientists make estimates by using respirometry tests. Experimenters place waste (in this case a plastic bottle) into compost rich in microbes that will break it down. They then aerate the mixture and leave it for several days. As the microbes break down the bottle they produce carbon dioxide as a waste product. By measuring the COgiven off, scientists know a rough estimate of how much the bottle will decompose over time.

Even taking a conservative estimate from these tests, 70 years, this means that the first plastic bottles would only just now be fully decomposing. Estimates at the other end of the spectrum say that your bottle of sugary drink that you bought and threw away without thinking could be floating around in the ocean until 2457.

You can learn more about SodaStream's environmental initiative below in 'Who Are The Homoschlepiens?' featuring Mayim Bialik.

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