The phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” comes from a common English Christian burial rite that includes the following King James Bible quote: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
That’s a fancy way of saying that at some point we—like everything else on Earth—will eventually decompose. The word decompose means “to separate into constituent parts or elements or into simpler compounds,” according to Merriam-Webster. Biodegradation is a similar process, but one that is defined by elements that can be broken down into innocuous parts by the action of living things like worms or microorganisms.
All non-living things are eventually broken down into simple molecules by the elements, microorganisms, and the ravages of time, but some things take significantly longer to decompose than others. When a person throws something in the garbage, the discarded item seems to be out of their lives forever. However, the item’s journey to elemental breakdown or decomposition has just begun. Organic materials, like that leftover salad someone couldn’t quite finish, can return to the earth in a matter of days—but the plastic the salad was packaged in can stay put for thousands of years.
It’s important to note that many variables affect decomposition, and the timelines stated in this article are derived from averages or amalgamations based on large samples. Decomposition rates can vary dramatically based on factors like temperature, moisture, exposure to sunlight and the elements, the presence or lack of microorganisms, and whether the object is buried or exposed. Also, some items like plastic bottles contain a variety of objects that are made differently from various quantities of dissimilar materials. In other words, not all plastic bottles are the same, so they’re likely to have varied decomposition rates.
While decomposition rates are inherently inexact, it is a topic worth discussing considering 8 million tons of plastic trash are dumped into the ocean every single year. In a world overflowing with discarded things, it’s important to know how long trash will hang around.
Stacker looked at how long it takes for the things people throw away to decompose. Continue reading on to find out for yourself below.
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