While there is a 500 to 1000 year estimate on the decomposition of plastic, no one really knows the answer to this question. Scientists use respirometry tests to make conclusions about the decomposition of plastic. Because plastic itself has been around for only a relatively short period of time in history, scientists have very little evidence of how long it takes to break down. In addition, a variety of factors come into play in regards to decomposition, such as the type of plastic it is, the temperature and the amount of oxygen and water present during decomposition. Considering all the factors that come into play when it comes to plastic breaking down, the best answer out there seems to be that it takes a very, very long time!
According to a study by Katsuhiko Suido, PhD in 2009, the deterioration rates of different types of plastics around coastal areas were estimated at:
Since, such pieces of garbage last so long, it will be a difficult task to clean up the growing North Pacific and South Pacific garbage patches.
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