Depending on how thirsty you are, it might take you less than five minutes to swig back the contents of a plastic bottle. But it takes the ocean 450 years to break down the plastic.
This is the estimate from the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Woods Hole Sea Grant, which compiled data showing the length of time for man-made marine debris to biodegrade in the sea.
As the image above shows, fishing line is the worst offender, taking up to 600 years to biodegrade, while disposable diapers will take as long as plastic bottles – 450 years – to break down.
Plastic shopping bags will take up to 20 years to break down, while styrofoam takeaway coffee cups take 50 years, and cigarette butts take 10.
Every year, around eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean – and it’s thought that, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight). When plastic does eventually break down into smaller particles called “microplastics”, these can be eaten by fish – and end up in food eaten by humans.
Governments and organizations around the world are increasingly recognizing the ocean plastic problem and its impact on the marine environment.
In October, the European Parliament backed a complete ban on certain single-use plastics, including cotton buds, straws and plastic cutlery, which it hopes to bring into effect by 2021.