Why Are Plastics Non Biodegradable?

  • By: greenorb
  • Date: May 6, 2022
  • Time to read: 5 min.

Ever wondered why plastics do not biodegrade?

Fossil products such as crude oil are heated at high temperatures to form incredibly strong polymers to make plastic. 

Since polymers have strong chemical bonds and aren’t found too often in nature, they require a lot of energy to make and break.

Let’s talk about the non-biodegradability of plastics and why it is a problem.

What Makes Plastics Non-biodegradable?

Now, assume you’re bacteria or fungus looking for food, and you bump into leaves and animal carcasses, both of which you or your friends can eat; then, suddenly, you spot something you’ve never seen before – a plastic bottle. 

Although you’ve been evolving for millions of years, you’ve never encountered such strange things as plastic, and therefore you don’t have a mechanism to break it down and use it for nutrition. 

Why plastics last long is attributable to the chemicals they contain. Manufacturers heat fossil products to form strong polymers. 

It’s also argued that plastic is a relatively new technology introduced just a few decades ago and is foreign to most microorganisms. So, do plastics ever decompose?

Decomposition happens when organic materials like paper, animal carcasses, and wood break down to form sugars, water, carbon dioxide, and other simple organic or inorganic compounds. 

You may as well call it the rotting or decaying of organic waste. Some materials decompose when buried in the soil, while others, such as plastics, do not decompose. 

Most plastics don’t decompose because they contain inorganic materials such as polyethylene terephthalates and short-form “PET,” which take forever to decompose.

Although it’s nearly impossible to decompose plastics due to the nature of materials used in their manufacture, exposing them to direct sunlight can break them down. 

However, still, it may take a whole lifetime for that to happen. 

Are all Plastics Non-biodegradable?

Can plastic ever be biodegradable? I know you may have heard about bioplastics, and you’re likely confused about whether these plastics are more environmentally friendly or not. 

It’s essential to understand that all plastics serve us in the short term but take centuries to decompose. 

Biodegradable plastics cannot solve this mess; they’re not so biodegradable. So, all plastics are plastics, only that some take a shorter time to degrade. 

The common denominator in all plastics equations is non-biodegradability. Another thing, bioplastics are easily degradable compared to traditional plastics. 

Let’s talk about that first. 

  • Degradable: Something is said to be degradable if it can break down. Technically, plastics and everything else are degradable. Although bioplastics break down into millions of microplastics, it never biodegrades. The major physical difference between bioplastics and traditional plastics is that the latter doesn’t degrade easily, but it may when exposed to UV light. 
  • Biodegradable: Biodegradable materials completely break down into compost, water, or carbon dioxide. The term “biodegradable” often implies that decomposition takes place in a few weeks or months. Almost all plastics are durable and cannot decompose, and it’s for this reason that they’re considered Non-biodegradable. 

So, it’s safe to conclude that all plastics are non-biodegradable, but traditional plastics don’t easily degrade. 

Bioplastics Aren’t Any Better.

To some extent, bioplastics are better than traditional plastics, nor are they a solution to plastic pollution. 

However, some people view them as a better solution simply because they don’t take long to degrade compared to “regular” plastics. 

Others believe bioplastics are better because of the biodegradable materials used to manufacture these plastics. 

Bioplastics contain renewable materials such as plants, vegetable fats, woodchips, straw, food waste, and cornstarch. 

These ingredients are naturally recyclable, so they somehow control the fossil fuel mess brought about by traditional plastics. 

That bioplastics vanish into thin air after some time is just but a common myth. 

Under normal conditions, these plastics may biodegrade or not, but at least we are sure they fragment into microplastics by themselves. 

Most plastics, bio or not, require tough industrial conditions to alter their chemical composition. 

For example, some bioplastics quickly degrade or biodegrade when exposed to define temperature and microorganisms. 

Now that we have busted that myth, keep in mind that the only surefire way to tackle the plastics mess is by reducing our over-dependence on them because their biodegradability is never guaranteed. 

Plastics Pollute the Environment

The non-biodegradability of plastics is arguably the biggest environmental threat in this age. 

The use of these materials has uncontrollably exploded and is now a major headache to almost all nations. 

According to UNEP, approximately one truck of garbage is dumped into the ocean every minute! To say that plastic pollution is another global pandemic would be an understatement. 

Plastic waste threatens natural processes and ecosystems’ stability. Worse still, it directly affects millions of livelihoods and human beings’ social well-being. 

For this reason, we must now figure out alternatives to plastics, or we will lose what we once called home. 

Would you like to reduce plastic pollution? Here are a few great alternatives to plastics available today. 

  • Compostable plastics that can be bio-degraded under certain conditions. If you must use plastics, it’s always a good idea to opt for those that carry the “I will break down in a commercial facility” claim. 
  • Wood is not only renewable but also biodegradable. The good thing with wood is that you can use it to make virtually anything in this world, from kitchen utensils to cutting boards. 
  • Bamboo is a rapidly-growing biodegradable material that can replace plastic straws and tableware. Despite being compostable, bamboo is also durable and coventiently lightweight.
  • Paper may be better than plastics but can’t be recycled many times because its threads weaken with time. 

Final Thoughts

Plastics are non-biodegradable because they contain long-chain ethene polymers that make biodegradation impossible. 

Also, this chemical composition features increased molecular weight, thus making plastics a tough nut to crack for microorganisms . 

However, bioplastics contain both biodegradable and nonbiodegradable materials, which may decompose in commercial facilities. 

Since decomposing plastics is never an easy feat and there’s no guarantee that bioplastics will biodegrade, it’s important to consider other better alternatives such as paper, wood, bamboo, and compostable plastics whenever you get that opportunity.

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