How Long Does Plastic Take to Decompose in the Ocean?

Our oceans are a menace; from the coral reefs, to the deep sea, to the oceans. Beautiful sea creatures and under-water life is no longer a commonplace in many parts of the ocean. The amount of plastic littered into such massive water bodies have made the human plastic-footprint a bigger concern as this is probably more ominous than our carbon footprint as stated by Captain Charles Moore. In 1997, he discovered a huge quantity of plastic debris floating here and there in the Pacific Ocean and names it the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Garbage Patch is located in Northwest Hawaii. It is considered to be one of the biggest compilations of plastic waste found about 1000 miles away from Hawaii. The immeasurable amount of such plastic debris is further trapped by the converging ocean currents due to the five major subtropical gyres. Now we may ask ourselves where do such massive amounts of plastic waste come from? Not all people litter into the ocean everyday do we?

The answer is quite simple. Plastic debris are the remains of fishing gear people use mostly at oil-rigs located deep into the ocean. This is just 20 percent of the total sources of plastic debris left adrift from fishing. Some of the sources are the litter that accumulate in storm drains that are later washed into the sea such as plastic bags, bottles, containers, bottle caps etc. But an even bigger question is will they decompose over-time? Let us first understand the material that it is.

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All about the Plastic

The plastic material comprises of a wide range of semi-synthetic, synthetic and naturally occurring organic compounds that can be molded into usable objects. They are simply polymers made from repeating units.

Plastic is the preferred choice of material for manufacturers of goods and packing industries due to its flexibility, lightness and incredible durability. You might be concerned how durable are they since they pollute the ocean. The silver-lining here is that it is in the nature of plastic to decompose but it takes a great deal of time to do that.

How great a time it takes depends on how weak or strong the plastic material is. However, they do not completely decompose but decompose into smaller fragments called microplastic that is ingested by marine creatures and ends up on our plate when we are on the run for some delicious and mouth-watering seafood.

The State of Plastic Pollution Under-water

Brace yourself for some mind-boggling figure that will leave you speechless as people do not realize how bad the plastic pollution in the ocean is unless they see it for themselves or just happen to come across an article that states other-wise. Plastic pollution has affected approximately 700 marine species and more that 10 types of seabirds. There is an YouTube videos where a Pelican had its beak shut close by a tangled fishing wire.

Most fish and seabirds have ingested plastic of some sort. This is due to the truckload amounts of plastic that is littered on to the ocean every four minutes. This equivalent to more than 12.7 million tons of plastic hand delivered to the ocean every year.

Moreover, it has been estimated that there are five trillion pieces of plastic waste in the ocean wondering about on their own with a lost cause. Moreover, countries like USA, Canada and UK ship and dump plastic waste onto Asian and African countries. Such ships are often considered as a marine litterbug as it drops and sails towards its destination, leaving a trial of plastic waste.

How Long Does it Take for Plastic to Decompose?

As mentioned earlier, plastic cannot be fully decomposed. Microplastic still remains in the ocean after it breaks down into smaller fragments. However, the breaking down process takes enormous amounts of time depending on how strong the plastic material is.

The estimation of Trash Travels reveals a statistic that states a 20-year time period for a plastic bag to decompose into thin air. Plastic bottles take up to 450-years, enough time for a person to die and be brought back to life 5 times before that bottle can fully decompose.

On the other hand, materials used to make fishing line take up to a staggering 600 years to full disappear. But no one truly has the idea of how long plastic fragments remain in the ocean. In addition to that, UV rays from the sun also plays an important role to decompose plastic in the ocean environment, but still plastic only breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments.

The plastics that are found at sea are know to be a little less than a centimeter in size and weighs around 1/10th of a paperclip. There are also better and environmentally friendlier forms of plastics known as biodegradable plastic. They take approximately 3 to 6 months to fully decompose which is much safer that its synthetic counterpart.

That takes up to several lifetimes to completely vanish. Decomposition process can be further accelerated by high temperatures and the right moisture levels. Such plastics are made of all-natural plant materials such as corn oil, orange peel, starch etc. which are less harmful that conventional plastics made from chemical filters and composition and still it does not minimize the risks of micro-plastic remains in the ocean.

The Marine War

Plastic debris is a planetary threat to marine life. Animals and sea creatures that can and cannot be consumed get strangled in fishing nets, fishing lines and eat plastic waste thinking of it as food. Therefore, they die as a result if the waste cannot be ingested at all as it blocks their intestinal tracts or even make them feel less hungry and feel so full that the tendency to eat real food is diminished.

Bits of plastics are also humble homes for microorganisms and invasive species that destroy fish habitats and interrupt the ecosystem as well as the food chain should a rare species go extinct in severe circumstances as plastics attract persistent organic pollutants such as carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting polychlorinated biphenyls, polyclinic aromatic hydrocarbons and organochlorine pesticides as the DDD. This not only dangers marine life but also pose health risks to humans.

Managing Plastic Waste

Scientists argue that cleaning up plastic waste is not feasible and the debris are spread out into vast areas. Moreover, an ocean cleanup will not only cost extensively but also entails filtering of water that may catch plankton and other organisms which will disrupt the marine ecosystem. Moreover, 94% of the plastic waste end up on the seafloor.

The production of plastic have sky-rocketed of up to a record breaking 322 million tons in 2015. However, these estimated do not include synthetic fibers, plastic wire, rope, containers, cups etc. that end up in the sea which can add 61 million tons to the previous estimate. Moreover, our most favorite coffee place such as Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts produce over 4 to 5 billion coffee cups a year which is just the tip of the ice-berg as drink companies altogether produce 500 billion plastic bottles for single use annually.

The only feasible solution to such traumatic statistics is that governments should restrict unnecessary plastic production and hold companies responsible for environmental damage. The other most viable solution is to increase public awareness about plastic waste entering the sea by enforcing costly penalties for persistent litterbugs and at the same time addresses the importance of reuse, reduce, replace and recycle of plastic products. In addition to that, many people suggest incineration to get rid of piles of waste. However, this only accelerates the rate at which the environment is being polluted which can inflict air-pollution and disease to people who respiratory illness.

Bottom Line

It would be foolhardy to rely on time to do a number on the plastic that is dumped into the sea. As much as it takes incredible amounts of time to bio-degrade and worse yet decompose that take up several hundred years, people should really focus on a sustainable environment. The education system was smart enough to incorporate the importance of learning how to minimize damage, but it all comes down to the personal responsibilities towards the life above and below the sea.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gruesome sight that will leave anyone awestruck to how did this come to reality. But this is quite a special landmark that will not only teach a lesson to the current generation but the generations yet come. People like Marcus Eriksen encourage beach cleanups and attracted 500,000 volunteers to participate in the 25th Annual International Coasted Cleanup and removed unwanted debris from 6000 sites around the world which includes all the 50 states of America. This in turn will prevent the Trash Vortex to kick out trash it currently holds, into areas of cleaner waters.


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