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  • In nature, different materials biodegrade at different rates. If you throw your apple core into the bushes along with a steel toy car, your apple core will have disappeared in a few months and your toy car will be rusty but still recognisable. It may take many years before the toy car disappears entirely.

    To be able to work effectively, most microorganisms that assist the biodegradation need light, water and oxygen. Temperature is also an important factor in determining the rate of biodegradation. This is because microorganisms tend to reproduce faster in warmer conditions.

    Many products that are biodegradable in soil – such as tree trimmings, food wastes and paper – will not biodegrade when we place them in landfills, because the artificial landfill environment lacks the light, water and bacterial activity required for the decay process to begin.

    The Garbage Project is a study of waste conducted by a group at the University of Arizona, USA. The project has unearthed from landfill hot dogs, corn cobs and grapes that were 25 years old and still recognisable, as well as newspapers dating back to 1952 that were still easily readable!

    How fast do things biodegrade?

    This table shows how long some common items will take to break down if left in the environment. The information has been mostly sourced from the Stacker article How long it takes 50 common items to decompose.


    5 days –1 month


    2–5 months

    Cotton T-shirt

    6 months

    Orange peels

    6 months


    2,000 years

    Wool socks

    1–5 years

    Plastic-coated paper milk cartons

    5 years

    Leather shoes

    25–40 years

    Nylon fabric

    30–40 years

    Tin cans

    50–100 years

    Aluminium cans

    80–100 years

    Glass bottles

    1 million years

    Cigarette butts

    18 months to 10 years

    Plastic bags

    500 years to forever

    How do we measure biodegradability?

    Plastic bags have only been around for about 50 years, so how do the scientists know how long they take to degrade?

    To make long-term estimates, scientists often use respirometry tests. The experimenters place a solid waste sample – like a newspaper, banana peel or plastic bag – in a container with microorganisms and soil, and then they aerate the mixture. Over the course of several days, microorganisms digest the sample bit by bit and produce carbon dioxide – the resulting amount of CO2 serves as an indicator of degradation.

    Nature of science

    Sometimes scientists use estimates to give data on biodegradability. These are usually based on known quantities and extrapolated to take account of time or other environmental factors.

    Respirometry tests work well for newspapers and banana peels, but when scientists test plastic bags, nothing happens – there's no CO2 production and no decomposition. Why? The most common type of plastic shopping bag – the kind you use to get at supermarkets – is made of polyethylene, a person-made polymer that microorganisms don't recognise as food. So, if there is no CO2 production for plastic in respirometry tests, where does the 500-year estimate come from? Although polyethylene bags don't biodegrade, they do photodegrade. When exposed to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight, polyethylene's polymer chains become brittle and start to crack. This suggests that plastic bags will eventually fragment into microscopic granules. Scientists do know that many plastic break down into microplastics, as of yet, however, scientists aren't sure how many centuries it takes for plastics to completely break down and 'disappear'. That's why some people give a 500 year estimate, while others prefer a more conservative 1000 year lifespan. According to some plastics experts, all these figures are just another way of saying ‘a really, really long time’.

    Related content

    Explore the science ideas and concepts around biodegradability and bioindicators.

    Find out how students investigated the decomposition cycle and trialled different composting systems in the article Participatory science and composting – CAPOW.

    Why don’t things break down in old landfill systems? The article Structure of landfills provides some insights. Follow this up with the activities Thinking about landfills, Looking at modern landfill systems and Label the landfill.

    The article Rethinking plastics explores how our thinking about plastic has changed over the years. It contains a timeline that presents a brief history of plastic: technological advances, societal and environmental impacts and some of the initiatives helping us rethink how we use plastics.

    Bioplastics are a form of plastic that can be made from renewable bio-based resources. Discover more about the difference in meaning between biodegradable and compostable.

    This article has lots of links to Science Learning Hub resources for primary teachers related to the recycling and biodegradability in the Material World strand of the New Zealand Curriculum. Information to relevant articles, activities and media are grouped under the following headings:

    • The issue of waste
    • Modern landfill systems
    • Biodegradability, recycling and reuse
    • Plastic
    • Online citizen science

    Activity idea

    In this Biodegradability experiment students set up an experiment to determine the biodegradability of different substances.

    Useful links

    Find out more about backyard composting on the Compost Collective website.

    Single-use plastic shopping bags have been banned in New Zealand from 1 July 2019. Find out more on the Ministry for the Environment website.

    For more information on biodegradable and compostable plastics see the detailed resource on the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s website.

    See this article from Stacker – this looks at how long it takes for 50 common things people throw away to decompose.

      Published 19 June 2008, Updated 27 March 2023 Referencing Hub articles
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