What happens to unwanted items when they have passed their useful life? Their fate is up to you! Garbage that ends up in a landfill could sit for hundreds or thousands of years while it degrades slowly among other junk. A plastic bottle for example can sit in a landfill for a thousand years before it degrades and even then it never just disappears! Rainwater that falls on the bottle and the junk around it can collect water-soluble toxins and form a nasty liquid called leachate that if not properly managed can be harmful to ecosystems.

If instead the same bottle drifts into the ocean it could float indefinitely until it ends up in a place like the Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling gyre located between Hawaii, California, and Japan. Here our bottle will get caught in a swirling vortex limbo where it will be photodegraded by the sun. According to scientists, plastic bottles can break into smaller parts fairly quickly in the ocean with the sun’s help. The problem is that these smaller pieces never truly disappear from the water. Eventually they can make their way into increasingly larger animals the whole way up the food chain to us!

Now let’s imagine a more pleasing fate for our meager bottle. Say for example that plastic bottle is placed into a recycling receptacle by a clever human like you. Finally it has the chance for a productive second life and will see a much more exciting fate! The bottle will be washed, squished, melted, and turned into a useful product we can once again enjoy, like a kayak, or snorkel!

Photo Caption for below: Various beverage vessels and their estimated time to decompose in the environment according to the National Park Service.

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