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Decomposition Rates - How long does it take to decompose?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Worldwide, we produce 2.01billion tonnes of waste annually (Worldbank, 2019) which is the equivalent of 286million elephants or 158million double decker buses, and this accumulates every year, with much of this not correctly discarded.

We discard effortlessly. It is not uncommon to see litter among the sides of the roads or in the water bodies near our homes. We discard, assuming that where we leave our items has no consequence on the environment it is placed in, but it does and the effects of this waste feeds into the very system that we rely on; water.

The following graph from Worldbank identifies the percentage of waste type.

Whilst we may automatically assume that much of our waste produced is plastic, food and green category accounts for 44% of waste.

Whilst it doesn't account for the majority, plastic accounts for 12% of the waste produced which when looking at our earlier statistic of 2.1billion tonnes of waste is equal to 240million tonnes of plastic.

Much of our plastics are Polyethylene which allow them to be stretched multiple times. Polyethylene allows us to create food packaging, plastic bags, cling film, electrical insulation, milk and water bottles and agricultural film; which is used to modify soil temperatures.

Formed through the bonding of secondary soft materials to polymers, the polymer is made up of monomer molecules which are pieced together to create a chain or 3D network. It is this soft bonding process that allows for such plastics to be recycled.

But we know that much of it cannot be recycled and many items don't make it to the recycling plants. So where do they end up? The answer is our natural systems and in particular, in water bodies, left to decompose at natures rate.

One plastic bag takes 20 years to decompose.

One plastic straw takes 200 years to decompose.

One plastic water bottle takes 240 years to decompose.

Whilst it may seem easy to discard the odd plastic bottle here and there, remember; this action is being repeated over and over Worldwide, to account for 240million tonnes every year.

If we assume all plastic is empty plastic water bottles weighing on average at around 0.01kg empty, then that is the equivalent of 24,000,000,000,000 bottles. This is only 12% of the waste.

Glass accounts for 5% of the waste, but it has one of the highest decomposition rates.

One glass bottle takes 1million years to biodegrade.

Let's look at some other commonly disposed items and their rate of decomposition.

The plastic foam cup, commonly purchased, used and discarded on a commute to work from the local coffee shops takes 50 years to decompose.

Disposed nappies used Worlwide, take 450 years to decompose.

A cigarette filter takes between 1 and 5 years to decompose and the aluminium can used for the refreshing fizzy drinks we consume, takes between 80 and 200 years.

Whether it takes 1 week, 1 year, or the shocking glass decomposition rate of 1 million years, the rate of production, use and disposal is too fast and too much. Our system simply cannot continue to play host to the waste we are mindlessly producing.

There are plenty of alternatives to choose from; check out the list below of a few small changes you could make to reduce your waste:

- Shopping trolley bag set; easy to use, store and keeps your food organised by their colours. They are easily lifted and designed to fit into the standard shopping trolley.

- Re-usable nappies; these are easy to clean and will save you a tonne of money! and a tonne of waste entering the environment! The link here is a little expensive, but there are many affordable options available.

- Re-usable period underwear - produced by thinx, the masterminds behind reusable, washable, period underwear

- Stainless steel water bottle/ coffee cup; you've probably seen them around as more and more people become conscious of the water bottle waste. These Chillys water bottles will keep your water cold for 12 hours and can be reused over and over again!

- Bamboo toothbrush these bamboo brushes are sold by WWF, so along with reducing your waste, you'll also be contributing to a great charity, that devotes itself to the conservation of our planets and it's animals.

Remember, if every person Worldwide made one small change, then that is 8 billion small changes, and the changes above are easy to make, better for the environment and many will save you money.

Thanks for reading.

The Climate Corner

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