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How long does a tomato survive in the open? How long does a plastic bottle take to fade? Waste left in nature threatens the survival of more than 15,000 animal species and intoxicates the food chain of which humans are also part. And some of these materials that are so harmful to fauna and flora remain in the environment for eternity: without going any further, a glass bottle can take up to four millennia to degrade by itself.
The time it takes for the listed objects to evaporate in the open air is approximate. It will depend on the variations in the composition or manufacture of one and the other, and also on the environmental conditions to which they are exposed. All in all, the approach outlined below is correct, according to expert Daniel Ramón, former CSIC professor and director of the biotechnology company Biópolis.
Paper, a material made from cellulose extracted from trees, degrades in about a year in humid places. If it goes to a dry place the decomposition will take much longer. The environmental cost of its production is high: according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), between 2000 and 2010 the planet would have lost 13 million hectares of forests per year.
Tobacco has about 4,000 recognized chemicals. Among them, nicotine, tar, ammonia and polonium 210, all of which are carcinogenic and influence the death of more than six million people a year, according to an estimate by the World Health Organization (WHO). The filter of the cigarettes is made of cellulose acetate, the element of quickest evaporation of the cigarette. The combination of components of the cigarette butt causes its degradation time to range between one and ten years.
Chewing gums are 80% plastic. The rest, a mixture of natural and synthetic resin gums, sugar, flavorings and artificial colors. Its degradation, which lasts an average of five years, requires the action of oxygen, which in its early stages will petrify the gum. Later it will crack and fade with hardly any environmental trace.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the material with which most of the world's water bottles are made, is unapproachable for the vast majority of decomposing microorganisms in nature. A plastic container of these characteristics can take between 100 and 1,000 years to begin to lose its tone and begin to fade in the open air. A fact: by 2025, about 155 million tons of plastic waste will have been dumped on the planet in the sea.
Sports shoes, usually made of pieces of leather, rubber, cloth and other synthetic elements, have different degradation times due to the same multiple composition. The textile parts (leather, fabric) will fade first and the chemical parts (foams, synthetic soles) last. 200 years is the estimated time it may take for all its parts to evaporate.
The decomposition process of a tomato can last between two and three months. Organic waste is the waste that we generate the most in Spain: it represents approximately 40% of our garbage bag.
The tetrabrik, a multifunctional container created in the 1950s in Sweden, consists of several layers and is composed of 75% cardboard (made from cellulose), 20% plastic (pure polyethylene) and 5% aluminum . The variety of its elements causes its degradation time to rise to approximately 30 years.
A common sink can contaminate up to 3,000 liters of water. And their survival in the environment is enormous: they can take between 500 and 1,000 years to degrade, although some, depending on their composition, begin to decompose at 50 years. Mercury, contained in almost all batteries (apart from arsenic, zinc, lead, chromium or cadmium), is one of the most toxic metals known. When it comes into contact with water, methylmercury is created, a derivative that seriously pollutes the marine biosphere.
Glass bottles, a 100% recyclable material, are made up of sodium and calcium carbonates and sand. And they are, perhaps, the hardest nut to crack for nature: each unit can take 4,000 years to disintegrate, not to break.
It takes about ten years for a can of soda to turn into iron oxide in the open. Then it will take about 40 more years to fully degrade. This popular container is comprised of a 210 micron (0.21 millimeter) layer of steel coated with varnish and tin plated. If the can were 100% aluminum, a highly recoverable material, it would take more than 100 years to disappear.