Ask a scientist: why is it so hard to break down plastic? – News – Columbia Daily Tribune

By Zeke Elkins


Decomposition is a process by which organic materials such as wood, animal carcasses, and paper are broken down into simpler organic compounds. To break something down, it is buried in the ground where bacteria can break it down. Decomposed organic material is then recycled. The broken down organic compounds serve plants as food, enrich the soil and nourish other living beings.

The problem with plastic decomposing is that plastic is not organic. Most of the plastics used today are made of polyethylene terephthalate, or PET for short, and are almost indestructible. It is almost impossible to break down PET plastics because most bacteria cannot break them down. UV light from the sun can break down plastic, but it takes a long time.

We produce 300 million tons of plastic every year, which is the equivalent of 50 million African elephants! The amount of plastic we threw away is so great that there is a plastic garbage stain in the Pacific Ocean that is currently three times the size of France. Virtually all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs, and around 1 million sea creatures die from plastic every year.

However, there is hope. Researchers have found a bacterium that breaks down PET plastic. And new, biodegradable plastics are currently in development. Hopefully one day we will all use biodegradable plastics that can break down easily. In the meantime, there are many ways to reduce plastic consumption, such as drinking from reusable water bottles instead of single-use plastic water bottles.

Interesting Fact: It can take 50 to 80 years for a single plastic cup to crumble.

Zachary (Zeke) Elkins is a Ph.D. Student in the Life Sciences Department at the University of Missouri.

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