So most plastics are made from oil and most plastics do not biodegrade. See how and why here…

But what does that actually mean?


Biodegradation refers to the breaking down of organic substances by natural means. Natural means, means the breaking down is done by naturally occurring entities – things that are made in the body such as enzymes ( clever things that enable chemical break downs) or micro organisms that inhabit the teeny tiny world ( bacteria, fungi and exceptionally small plants and animals ). Any plant-based, animal-based, or natural mineral-based product has the capability to biodegrade

The key point is, is that the process of biodegradation is an integral part of the natural cycle. This process could be called rotting or decomposing or other nasty sounding things and yes it can be smelly but it is the very basis of life. Because as natural materials break down they release all kinds of nutrients that are used to feed other living organisms. Orange rind becomes compost which releases nutrients the orange tree can utilize. The tree feeds and so has the energy to make fruit which we eat discarding the peel which then biodegrades into compost – feeding many other creatures along the way including worms. It’s a kind of magic

In short…..

Biodegrading is the breaking down of organic substances,  (plants, dead animals, rocks, minerals etc.), by natural means. It  happens all the time in nature. We live, we die, we rot and so we feed the next generation. Even if you are a rock. All plant-based, animal-based, or natural mineral-based substances will over time biodegrade.

Here’s how long it takes for some commonly used products to biodegrade, when they are scattered about as litter:

Paper ~ 2-5 months 
Cotton rags ~ 1-5 month
Natural fiber rope ~ 3-14 months
Orange peel ~6 months
Wool socks ~1 to 5 years
Leather shoes ~25 to 40 years
Tin cans ~ 50 to 100 years

Plastic – years? centuries? maybe never!

Why Plastic Doesn’t Biodegrade

Because they are man made, the majority of plastics do not biodegrade. “Nature doesn’t make things like that, so organisms have never seen that before ” says Kenneth Peters, an organic geochemist at Stanford University, quoted in this fantastic article I recommend you read

Which means the enzymes and the micro organisms responsible for breaking down organic substances  do not recognize plastic. Therefore plastic products are pretty much indestructible – they do not rot or biodegrade.


Plastic Eating Microbes

Of course it is not quite as simple as that. Some bacteria it seems can digest plastic. Don’t get too excited. They are rare and don’t eat a great deal but you can read the latest reports here

Biodegradable Musings

That said the term biodegradable can be difficult to define. It is often about the time something takes to biodegrade – the rate at which something breaks down. Arguably  everything, even man-made products, will eventually biodegrade. However if it takes centuries to do so, it is generally considered to be non-biodegradable.

It also depends where a product is dumped.

Why Landfill Doesn’t Work

“Many products that are inherently biodegradable in soil, such as tree trimmings, food wastes, and paper, will not biodegrade when we place them in landfills because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin.”

This is why newspapers landfilled back in 1952 can still be easily read!  The Garbage Project is an anthropological study ofwaste conducted by a group at the University of Arizona. From Greengood

Too Much Trash

The sustainable rate of biodegradation is only what an ecosystem can deal with. Too much and the microorganisms get overwhelmed and collapse sobbing, unable to cope.


Of course plastic breaks, tears  and degrades – but only into smaller pieces of plastic. Read more about that here


Useful stuff to know

Degradable, biodegradable or compostable

So most plastics are made from oil and most plastics do not biodegrade. See how and why here… And yet you will find plastics described as degradable ...
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Compostable Plastics

Plastic was the name given to early synthetic products such as cellophane,  that were derived from cellulose. These plastics  were biodegradable. Then they learnt how to make ...
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Biodegrading and degradation – Plastic Lifespan,

So most plastics are made from oil and most plastics do not biodegrade. See how and why here... But what does that actually mean? Biodegrading Biodegradation ...
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Plastic eating microbes

Is this a good idea?- much as I hate bad plastic I am rather attached to the computer and Dyson. Will they disappear before my very eyes ...
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Degradation Initiators & Degradable Plastic

Traditional plastics do not biodegrade. Of course plastic breaks, tears and cracks. It weathers and sunlight makes it brittle, It falls apart – it degrades – but ...
Read More


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9 thoughts on “Biodegrading and degradation – Plastic Lifespan,

  1. Pingback: Plastic Roads – Plastic Roads

  2. It is truly scary how long it takes for particular materials to break down. Great work actively providing facts and figures to display how our attitudes towards littering really must change!

  3. maybe our bodies will adapt to digesting microplastic and it will all turn into a wonderful food source … that’s your cue fine folks at monsanto.

  4. Dear Tina,

    Thank you for your kind words

    After looking at your websites, I would feel presumptuous giving you any advice on how to promote an idea. There is some really lovely work there.

    I have yet to source a plastic free label. I have found compostable labels – i.e. the glue and the label itself is compostable but they come on a plastic backing. Still the search goes on.

    For what it is worth, have posted a lot of stuff here and on my FB page and find that snappy infographics with a strong pictorial content are always popular. Maybe fliers are the way forward. Recycled paper natch.

    As for educating people, I’m afraid the only way I try to do that is by example. I keep on refusing plastic, I explain why I do so and of course I blog. The more people are talking about the problem the more likely it is to be addressed.

    You are welcome to use anything of the website and please do send me a synopsis of your anti-plastic activities so I can feature you in the blog.

    Hope this has helped.

  5. I love your blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this important information. I have been trying very hard to live a plastic free life and have taken away plastic bags and plastic water bottles completely out of my life. Its actually a pretty hard challenge, but one I am inspired to do and have hopefully inspired others.

    I would like to get this information on to the streets, I live in Barcelona and feel there is an urgent need to educate people about plastic pollution. I see people are so disconnected to the real issues and many don’t even realize how bad plastic is. I was thinking of making some stickers or flyers. Do you know any alternatives to stickers that will be more eco friendly? Or would recycled paper flyers be the best way? How would you recommend educating people on street level?
    I have already spoken to local shops and they said they would be happy to put up signs in the windows so make people think before taking that plastic bag…

    I would love to hear your ideas and of course get your permission to use some of the facts you have on your website.
    thank you,

    Tina, a california girl living in Barcelona and trying to change the world 🙂

  6. It surely is – forlots more dirty pictures check out our Planet trash page on face – link to the left. Thanks for dropping by x

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