Notice that “disintegrate” has a special, limited meaning for ecologists. In nuclear energy or space science, and in general usage, disintegrate means to break into constituent elements, parts, or small particles (Merriam-Webster).
But that’s not precisely what we’re interested in, for ecology. We want to know how human-made items and materials break down until they are ecologically harmless — or at least less dangerous. So if the major dangers of plastic bags are that they collect debris and cause animals to be trapped, then we’re not so interested in how and when the plastic will return to basic elements, we’re interested in how the plastic bag disintegrates so that it no longer collects debris and no longer traps animals.
Plastic bags are a good example, because in direct sunlight, they disintegrate very quickly. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation breaks them down into tiny pieces. Problem solved? Uh, not quite. No one is sure if those smaller pieces EVER break down naturally. The major problems might be solved, but there’s still the problem that those small pieces might get … everywhere. Including inside your body.
Other ways that things disintegrate are: in water, they might dissolve. If they can be attacked by mold and mildew, they might gracefully rot. If they are burned, especially at high enough temperatures and in controlled conditions, the ecologically harmful aspects of a material may be mitigated. The pounding force of water is sufficient to smash many things up (notice how battered driftwood looks on the beach).
Chemical and mechanical changes are going on all around us, all the time.
And don’t forget that we don’t always want things to disintegrate, if we can help it. Nuclear waste is sometimes melted into high-temperature “nuclear ceramics”. We absolutely don’t want those to disintegrate any time soon!
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