What is the decomposition time of plastic?

August 2, 2023
min read

Short answer

The decomposition time of plastic varies depending on the type of plastic and environmental conditions. However, on average, it can take hundreds to thousands of years for plastic to decompose.


The decomposition of plastic is a complex process that occurs over a significantly long period of time. Plastics are synthetic materials made from polymers, which are large molecules consisting of repeating subunits. These subunits are created through chemical reactions involving fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas. Due to their chemical structure, most types of plastic do not easily degrade in the environment and can persist for hundreds of years.

Plastic decomposition begins with various environmental factors, such as exposure to sunlight, oxygen, heat, and moisture. These factors initiate a process known as photooxidation, in which the long polymer chains in plastics break down into smaller fragments called microplastics. Sunlight plays a crucial role in this process as it provides energy for the breakdown of chemical bonds. The presence of oxygen and heat further accelerates the degradation process, causing the plastic to become brittle and more susceptible to physical degradation.

However, it is important to note that the decomposition of plastic is a slow and incomplete process. The resulting microplastics remain in the environment for an extended period and can pose significant environmental hazards. Microplastics can be easily consumed by marine organisms, leading to bioaccumulation and potential harm to marine life. Additionally, these tiny particles can also make their way into the food chain, posing risks to human health. Thus, addressing plastic decomposition requires a holistic approach, including reducing plastic consumption, improving recycling methods, and developing more sustainable alternatives to fossil fuel-derived plastics.

Is it possible to recycle plastic?

Intresting facts

  • Plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose naturally, making it one of the most persistent forms of pollution on the planet.
  • When exposed to sunlight, a process called photodegradation occurs where the plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller fragments called microplastics.
  • Different types of plastics have different decomposition rates, with some types taking longer than others to degrade.
  • Plastic decomposition can also occur through biodegradation, where microorganisms break down the plastic molecules into simpler compounds, but this process is usually slow and insufficient in natural environments.
  • Recycling plastic is crucial in reducing its environmental impact as it helps to divert the materials from landfills and reduces the need for new plastic production, which requires tremendous amounts of energy and resources.

Summary and final thoughts

Plastic takes an incredibly long time to decompose, ranging from hundreds to thousands of years. The exact decomposition time varies based on the type of plastic, environmental conditions, and exposure to sunlight and oxygen. The most common types of plastic, like PET and HDPE, can take up to 500 years to decompose, while others like PVC can take even longer. The accumulation of plastic waste poses a significant threat to the environment and wildlife, as it can persist in ecosystems for centuries, releasing harmful chemicals and microplastics. Our reliance on plastics necessitates urgent action to reduce plastic consumption, improve waste management, and encourage the development of sustainable alternatives to mitigate the long-term impact of plastic pollution on our planet.

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