How did we make plastic that isn’t biodegradable and is so bad for the planet, out of materials only found on Earth?


I just wondered how we made these sorts of things when everything on Earth works together and naturally decomposes.

In: 6571

Everything on Earth doesn’t do that. When was the last time you saw a rock decompose? Or a glass of water? It’s only living things that decompose.

Decomposition is not some inevitable force of nature. It’s a bunch of bacteria eating organic matter. There are many things those bacteria can’t eat, and those things don’t decompose.

“Biodegradable” mean it is degradable by biological mean. In most situation, it just mean that micro organism can eat it and poop it.

Not many organism can eat plastic. So in most cases, we instead have to wait for natural wear (rain, wind, dust, etc…) to damage it enough that it’ll turn into small particles.

Plastics are made from organic materials, oil, which is hydrocarbons that were once plants, so one might expect plastics could decompose as quick as any plants, except they don’t. The reason is that there’s very little life on earth that knows what to do with the molecules that makes up plastic, humans mix other chemicals with the hydrocarbons to make new molecules that never existed in nature before, they’re so new to biology that almost nothing exists that can munch on it and use it to grow. The chemical bonds in plastics are tougher and weirder than anything natural, which is what makes them so useful to us but so awful for nature. There are some bacteria that can break down plastic with enzymes, because ‘life finds a way’ and hopefully research in developing that into a commercially viable process will make plastic recycling something we can actually do at scale.

Things bacteria and fungi don’t know how to break down happen sometimes even without our help. The Carboniferous period, when most of the world’s coal formed, was the time after plants started making lignin and before decomposers learned to break it down (the lignin piled up, got buried, and eventually got compressed into coal).

> How did we make plastic that isn’t biodegradable and is so bad for the planet, out of materials only found on Earth?

Bit of a false premise on that.

Your question has 3 pieces, and piece #1 and #3 are related, so let’s break those out:

> “How did we make plastic that isn’t biodegradable … out of materials only found on Earth?”

“Biodegradable” means that biology breaks it down. I.E. Living things eating it and turning it into… other things. Generally, where the end result is “dirt”. Dirt itself is quite complicated and isn’t a single thing, it’s many things.

The amount of things that **are** biodegradeable is actually quite small. It has to be something that generally insects, fungus, or bacteria can use as food.

Generally, only biological things themselves (plants and animals) are biodegradeable.

A sandwich will rot. Mold will grow on and eat the bread which is made from wheat, bacteria will eat the meat and cheese which are made from animals, the vegetables which are grown from the dirt will fall apart on their own without the rest of their plant to keep them together. Insects might eat part of it, or animals. All kinds of stuff.

A sandwich was from biological stuff, and it degrades from other biological stuff.

… so… how did we make something that bacteria and fungus and insects and stuff can’t eat? Easy. That’s most of the entire planet. Like, 99.99999% of the planet.

You know how plastic is made. Out of oil. Oil is kinda biological, but nothing really eats crude oil. And, nothing yet has evolved to use plastic as an energy source (food). It’s too new. So… plastic isn’t made out of plants and animals (not on an human-appreciable scale), and, it’s not broken down by plants and animals.

But neither are rocks. Neither is a bar of iron. Neither is gold. And so on. So, you could ask the same question about an aluminum wheel as you do about plastic. Why doesn’t it biodegrade? Because nothing biological eats up aluminum.

So the question of how we can make it is pretty simply answered right there.

Next, the middle part of your question:

> and is so bad for the planet,

Well, what is “bad for the planet”?

In truth, plastic isn’t bad for the planet at all. Landfills in general aren’t. “Landfills filling up!” protests are generally about distracting from the bigger problems humans are causing on the planet. It gives people a tiny problem to feel bad about and focus on, so that they don’t focus on the much worse things we need to stop doing.

Landfills fill up. That’s what they do. If landfills were emptying, they’d be called mines.

Landfills filling up is more of an economic problem, as it’s expensive and inconvenient to find new places to seal our garbage away. We used to just dump garbage into lakes and rivers because it was cheapest. Now we use landfills and it’s a bit more expensive. When those landfills fill up, the next thing will be a little more expensive again. We will never run out of space, not even close, all that stuff came out of the ground originally.

We dig things out of the ground in mines, and then we put things back into the ground and cover them up. No one cares that a rock takes 50,000,000 years to break down, so why do we care about a chunk of plastic or styrofoam in a landfill taking 10,000 years? What harm does it do anyone? How is it any different than a random rock, or whatever else was underneath the ground?

Well, first, the problem with plastic isn’t necessarily that it’s not biodegradeable. There are things that do biodegrade that are still “bad for the planet”, or, “bad for the plants and animals we like on the planet”. For example, plain old sea salt is really bad for the planet if you dump lots of it in a forest. Everything will die. But salt biodegrades really easily, it’s an essential nutrient. Still, if you covered the whole planet in salt, it would kill all plants and animals on the land, for thousands of years.

The problem with plastic is… well… we’re still figuring that out. We have mechanical problems with plastic, like when birds and animals eat it and it gets stuck in their bodies. And we have beauty problems with plastic, because it’s ugly to look at pollution in a park or on a beach. But there are things that might be bad about plastic in very tiny pieces in any animal’s body (they’re probably not bad for plants). Our bodies weren’t designed to have plastic in them, and they don’t have much for processes to deal with them. That said, plastics might not do much damage, the whole reason we use them is because they don’t really react with anything.

In summary, there’s nothing that says that just because we made something from chemicals in the Earth, that is has to be beneficial to life on Earth, or, that if it’s not beneficial it has to biodegrade. Those are each different and unrelated things.

To biodegrade, you need a bacteria to eat it, or am animal but that’s even less likely.

It’s hard to eat it because you have to break the molecule to “burn it” in your body. Plastic is made by forcing oil based molecules to join together. Oil based molecules are already vere very long chains, and plastic is a super long chain. No living creature evolved to break such a complex food because normally food is made of short molecules.

Eventually, some bacteria will try it and succeed, bacteria evolve really fast so if they are given a new food, they probably give it a try sooner or later.

Earth itself doesn’t “decompose”, so why are we to be amazed by the fact that plastic materials are not? Initially the trees didn’t decompose either.

Bacteria and fungi evolved for 60 millions of years before they learned how to “eat” wood (lignin). More exactly between 360 MYA to 300MYA. Maybe even longer… to 200 MYA.

That’s why we have so much coal today.:


>One theory suggested that about 360 million years ago, some plants evolved the ability to produce lignin, a complex polymer that made their cellulose stems much harder and more woody. The ability to produce lignin led to the evolution of the first trees. But bacteria and fungi did not immediately evolve the ability to decompose lignin, so the wood did not fully decay but became buried under sediment, eventually turning into coal. About 300 million years ago, mushrooms and other fungi developed this ability, ending the main coal-formation period of earth’s history. Although some authors pointed at some evidence of lignin degradation during the Carboniferous, and suggested that climatic and tectonic factors were a more plausible explanation, reconstruction of ancestral enzymes by phylogenetic analysis corrobarated a hypothesis that lignin degrading enzymes appeared in fungi approximately 200 MYa.

I think the obvious thing most answers are missing is that lots of things on earth are not biodegradable. That’s why there’s an earth.

The problem isn’t just that the things don’t degrade, but the effects they have *while* they don’t go away. Because plastics don’t have the same properties as a lot of other things in our environment, there’s little evolutionary response to it. So animals and plants that encounter plastics can have detrimental effects to their health just based on being some foreign substance that life can’t figure out how to handle.

With other comments, another point I feel is worth mentioning. We are making the plastics out of oil that was underground for millions of years after not biodegrading for all of that time.

Also, “natural” doesn’t mean it’s good for life on earth. There is nothing supernatural about a meteor strike tossing up enough dust to kill off the dinosaurs. When algae started to fill the planet up with oxygen which lead to “The Great Dying” that killed some 90+% of all life on earth it wasn’t because oxygen was a material never found on earth.

Something is “bad for the planet” when it harms systems we, humans, want to preserve. If we choked the whole planet in plastic or nuclear fallout, or cook it with Green House Gasses, the planet will be fine. Some Life will almost definitely remain. And it will start over again. But I like humans. Some of my favorite people are humans. So I would like to keep the planet habitable for us.

>when everything on Earth works together and naturally decomposes.

What are you talking about? There’s plenty of toxic and hazardous elements and materials found in nature. Especially crude oil is way and way more toxic for the enviroment if not contained compared to plastics.

What about volcanoes? They seem to have no issue in getting rid of plastics.

Quick and sweet, “polymerization”.

That’s like using purified chemicals mixed with purified plastics, in an extremely controlled temperature and pressure chamber that produces the desired results. Not possible without modern science. Read: “a new process”.

Counter question: how do we burn so much fossil fuel, make nuclear power plants, have animal farming on a world scale like never seen before, and *not* think the planet would get fucked?

Edit, just reread your question.
No, not everything just “works together” and “decomposes” or whatever, especially man made things that were not able to be produced even 100 years ago. That shit sticks around, because that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do. Even many natural materials don’t do that, they are remnants from supernovae from millions of years ago and just sit there waiting for someone to scoop them up. Like if you threw a (man made) gold ring somewhere, nothing would happen to it for millions of years unless someone found it.

Imagine if you were the factory owner of a water bottle company, and all of a sudden, a pallet just sort of started leaking. That’d be bad. That’s why: use hard plastics for the bottles, that specifically *will not decompose*.

I’m not saying I’m for it, just saying why.

Because if you’re designing a new plastic thing, you’re more worried about being blamed for it breaking earlier than expected than you are about it lasting longer than you need it to. In the first case, the blame can come back to you personally, in the second case you’ll share the blame with every other person who ever made a plastic thing that didn’t degrade.

The plastics used to make products don’t exist in nature, and were designed to have special properties. Those plastics are lighter weight and easier to manufacture items out of than natural materials.

The earth made trees… which for thousands of years didn’t fully break down as the organisms to break them down didn’t evolve yet. Plastics is just one evolution higher, and there are even discovered bacteria that do consume it.

During the Carboniferous Period, plants with real wood and bark first appeared. Nothing on the planet at the time could digest them (lignin and suberin) at the time, so they didn’t rot. Huge amounts were buried and formed coal beds. Much of the rest burned in continent-wide wildfires. It took the appearance of fungi to change the process. So this is not the first time an indigestible organic material has showed up.

The assumption that because something is natural, it must be good and in balance is where things break down. I would argue that is a common misconception in layman environmentalism.

Nature is full of things that come about naturally whilst being devastating for both humans and the eco system.

Volcanic lakes can suddenly release huge amounts of CO2, suffocating (as in lethally) the fauna (incl. humans) in whole areas, as happened at Lake Nyos. Oil deposits can have natural leaks contaminating areas without any human intervention. There are (presumably rare) [naturally occurring nuclear reactors]( in unusually highly concentrated uranium deposits. There are even naturally occurring coal fires. [Mount Wingen](, for example, has burned for an estimated 6000 years. (A coal plant would at least have had filters in the chimneys.)

Or for a more controversial example, there are [naturally occurring molds]( infesting crops and releasing carcinogenic toxins into our food. Which is a source of debate with regards to artificial pesticides, as you might imagine.

If anything the thing that sets humans apart is our ability to find something we like and scale it up as much as we can. That has a way of throwing off the balance of anything, organic or not, given the efficacy of human determination. 😅

This in no way should make you feel less urgency about climate change or humans impact on the environment. It should however highlight the problems with associating “natural” with “balanced” or “good for nature”.

Same way a bad chef can make something completely inedible out of food.

The incorrect application of chemistry and heat.

It’s technically not bad for the planet and everything decomposes. It’s just not on the timeline that’s human/life friendly. When we say it’s bad for earth what we really mean is it will be harmful to humans and our current way of life.

Oh it will decompose. In millions of years. The next race will be astounded at the amount of oil from plastic they find in our previous landfills.

Because we did things to natural compounds that nature didn’t do to natural compounds, so nature isn’t equipped to deal with it.

First: You have to understand that not everything **IS** biodegradable. Metal and stone are not. OR they are, but the process can take millions of years.

Second, things are only biodegradable if something else exists that can degrade it. After trees first evolved, they did not rot because no fungi had evolved to eat wood. So they just piled up. That is where coal comes from.

Even though things like oil and coal came from living things, the heat and pressure of being trapped underground for millions of years have converted the chemicals in them into other chemicals, that nothing has yet evolved to digest. Then, we modify that oil and coal even further to make stuff out of

Some bacteria are starting to evolve to digest plastic, but… They can’t keep up. We are taking oil that took millions of years to develop and using it up in just over a hundred years (maybe a couple hundred, if we don’t kill ourselves first). Almost no natural process could keep up with that, even if it already existed.