Plastic is both a blessing and a curse. It has revolutionised the way we live for the better, but it also presents us with a big problem. Namely, what do we do with it and where does it go once we’re finished using it? Every toothbrush, drinking straw, Styrofoam clamshell and pen you’ve ever used is still on this earth — either in its original form, recycled into another product or slowly breaking down into tiny pieces called microplastics.

Plastic is everywhere, and by design, it’s made to last decades, if not hundreds of years. It’s incredibly useful, but it’s bad in terms of the waste created. The truth is we don’t know how long plastic lasts. Plastic has only been in circulation since 1907, and experts estimate that some plastics can last hundreds of years before they finally break down. And it keeps piling up in the strangest of ways like the Great Pacific garbage patch just floating in the middle of the ocean. 

How Long Does It Take for Plastic to Decompose? 

Plastics can take anywhere from 20 to 500 years to decompose, depending on the material and structure. Additionally, how fast a plastic breaks down depends on sunlight exposure. Like our skin, plastics absorb ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, which breaks down the molecules. This process is called photodegradation, and it’s why landfills often expose plastic waste to the sun to accelerate the breakdown process. 

For example, single-use plastic grocery bags take about two decades to break down. In contrast, plastic water bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a common type of plastic, are estimated to take approximately 450 years to fully break down. 

Here’s are the estimated decomposition timelines for common plastic waste products: 

Are biodegradable plastic bags really biodegradable?

How long it takes for biodegradable bags to decompose depends on a range of factors. If they’re placed in a microbe-rich environment to help it break down, biodegradable plastic bags can take anywhere from only a few months to a few years to fully break down. To compare, traditional plastic bags, on the other hand, take hundreds of years to fully decompose.

The issue is where biodegradable bags end up. Properly disposing of biodegradable plastic bags and ensuring they end up in the right environment for decomposing is the only way to ensure they’re able to break down fully.

Biodegradable materials are designed to be broken down by natural organisms like fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms. In some places biodegradable plastics can’t break down including in the marine environment like the ocean. That’s why you might find biodegradable-labelled bags floating around still intact.

Not all biodegradable plastics decompose in landfills. When you’re making your purchasing decisions for biodegradable products, look for biodegradable plastics that have specific labels stating that they’re ‘landfill-biodegradable’. Since the majority of the plastics we throw away end up in landfills, the smartest decision to reduce your ecological footprint is to use landfill-biodegradable bags.

How long does it take for a biodegradable plastic bag to decompose?

Biodegradable plastics take three to six months to decompose fully. That’s much quicker than synthetic counterparts that take several hundred years. Exactly how long a biodegradable bag takes to break down depends on various factors, such as temperature and the amount of moisture present.

But the bags aren’t always as environmentally friendly as they seem. They’re made from similar petrochemical-based materials to conventional plastic, only with compounds added that cause them to disintegrate gradually in the presence of light or oxygen. They often then degrade into a sludge of toxic chemicals.

Bioplastics made of cornstarch and other plant-based materials are a better bet. They give off CO2 as they decompose, but they’re merely expelling carbon locked in by the plant matter that originally formed them. The net effect on the environment is therefore close to zero.

What are biodegradable bags made of?

To put it simply, something is biodegradable when living things, like fungi or bacteria, can break it down.  Biodegradable bags are made from plant-based materials like corn and wheat starch rather than petroleum. However, when it comes to this kind of plastic, there are certain conditions required for the bag to begin to biodegrade.

Firstly, temperatures need to reach 50 degrees Celsius. Secondly, the bag needs to be exposed to UV light. In an oceanic environment, you’d be hard pressed to meet either of these criteria. Plus, if biodegradable bags are sent to landfill, they break down without oxygen to produce methane, a greenhouse gas with a warming capacity 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Are biodegradable bags good for the environment?

Biodegradable plastic bags are marketed as more eco-friendly solutions, able to break down into harmless material more quickly than traditional plastics. 

In a study published this week in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers put supposedly eco-friendly bags made from various organic and plastic materials and sourced from U.K. stores to the test. After three years buried in garden soil, submerged in ocean water, exposed to open light and air or stashed in a laboratory, none of the bags broke down completely in all the environments.

In fact, the biodegradable bags that had been left underwater in a marina could still hold a full load of groceries. Even standard plastic bags can’t be recycled from your home recycling bin, so most end up in landfill or are swept away by water or wind, becoming litter.

Biodegradable and compostable bags are meant to solve these problems, but the study indicates that’s not the case so far.

How much do biodegradable bags cost compared to plastic bags?

Bioplastics are also relatively expensive; they can be 20 to 50 per cent more costly than comparable materials because of the complex process used to convert corn or sugarcane into the building blocks for them. However, prices are coming down as researchers and companies develop more efficient and eco-friendly strategies for producing bioplastics.

What are some biodegradable plastic bag manufacturers?

Manufacturers of plastic bags generate a lot of revenue. Here are some of them with their total revenue.

BASF SE – [Revenue US$86 Billion]

BASF EF is the largest chemical producer in the world located in Ludwigshafen, Germany, and comprises joint ventures and subsidiaries in more than 80 countries. BASF has more than 390 production sites in various parts of the world including Europe, America, Asia, and Africa. BASF has been recycling bio-based and biodegradable polymers for more than 30 years. The company offers high-quality, completely compostable bioplastic derived from renewable sources based on sugar and is widely used in organic waste bags, agricultural films, and compostable coffee capsules. 

Eastman Chemical Company – [Revenue US$10 Billion]

Eastman Chemical Company is a US-based chemical company headquartered in Kingsport, Tennessee. The company has launched a cellulose-based engineering bioplastic, TREVA that offers high performance and reduced environmental impact. TREVA is chemically resistant, BPA-free, and dimensionally stable. 

Plantic Technologies – [Revenue US$23 Million]

Plantic Technologies is an Australian company focused on developing biodegradable plastics obtained from renewable sources. Plantic has developed a proprietary technology to offer biodegradable and organic alternatives to conventional plastics.


Futamura Group – [Revenue US$1.19 Billion]

Futamura Group is a global leader based in Japan that produces a wide range of plastic films, cellulose films, fibrous casing, activated carbon, and phenolic laminated sheets. Futamura is also focused on providing high-quality specialty products that are ethical and sustainable. The company has recently patterned with Biome Bioplastics to demonstrate a wide of compostable and bio-based multilayer films. 

NatureWorks LLC – [Revenue US$1.50 Billion]

NatureWorks LLC is a US-based company located in Minnetonka, that manufactures bioplastics, derived entirely from plant resources such as cornstarch. The company is jointly owned by PTT Global Chemicals and Cargill. Injection molding, foam, 3D printing, films, cards, fibers, and nonwovens are some of the key products offered by NatureWorks. 


These alternative bags aren’t meant to end up as litter in the street or in the natural environment — ideally, they’d all be treated just as manufacturers expect. Biodegradable bags would be landfilled or, in some cases, recycled into new plastics — at least in theory.

Biodegradable plastics can’t generally be recycled with other plastics — in fact, they can ruin other batches of recyclable plastic, degrading the product until it becomes unusable.

Meanwhile, the eco-conscious should hope their compostable bags end up in industrial composting facilities where high temperatures and favourable conditions for bacteria and other living things would break them down. Compostable bags in chilly, oxygen-starved landfills can actually be preserved rather than destroyed.

These are the real problems. Labels like “biodegradable”, “compostable” or even “recyclable” are theoretical — they don’t reflect the reality of what happens to the materials we throw away or litter into the oceans, and they don’t help people accurately understand how to get rid of them.

Some simple solutions might help. Standardised products, made of the same sets of materials, could streamline our waste management systems and allow much more of our waste to be profitably recycled. 

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