Ketchup Packets are Immortal

We walk in the evenings, carrying a bag or two, and pick up the trash on our way. Bottles, coffee cups, straws and all the debris left from fast food meals. Our neighborhood roads are relatively quiet wandering routes, with hilly profiles, so I find it interesting that we can normally fill at least one bag with human-made materials.

Back when the kid was in fifth grade she loved fast food. I guess that was because we hardly ever ate it. Logically enough, her idea for a Fifth Grade Science Project turned out to be buying the same basic meal at each local fast food joint, and testing the trash and wrappers for their comparative decay rate. McDonald’s, Burger King, Carl’s Jr., Jack-in-the-Box, In-N-Out, Hamburger Habit, Wendy’s. We labeled and photographed each collection, burger wrappings and boxes, French fry holders, cups, straws, napkins, whatever kind of ketchup container the “to go” option offered. Husband rototilled a section of garden and the kid buried each assemblage, labeled, under several inches of dirt. We helped her cover the area with chicken wire to keep birds and skunks from partaking, and for the next several weeks watered the area regularly.


When she dug it all up, she photographed each grouping again, and made up her poster report. Her findings? Paper degraded beautifully, even when waxed. We couldn’t find a trace of paper napkins, brown paper or bleached. Thin aluminum looked like it had been shredded. Straws, however, looked merely dirty and flattened. Styrofoam had no response to the experience.

That summer we went on a camping trip, and happened to stop at an educational display that gave the time to complete decay for various forms of trash. Yesterday, I found the slip of paper onto which I copied the projected decay dates from the display we saw then, and here’s what I can still read off the folded over yellowed sheet:

styrofoam     500 years —?

6-pack plastic collar 450 years

chewing gum   20-25 years

aluminum can   200-500 years

plastic-coated paper   5 years

plastic bottles   10 years

tin can   80-100 years

paper and paperboard 6 months

a cotton rag 1-5 months”

To which I add, straws– I bet they are close in durability to the 6-pack collar, and polyester fabrics likewise. Then there’s the question of what these things transmute into, for example styrofoam. Styrofoam is biologically inert– the microorganisms can’t use it. It crumbles, but doesn’t decay. Many plastics take a long time to degrade, but when fragmented into small enough units get easily picked up and incorporated into living tissues. There’s the fascinating question of how plastic we are each becoming as we ingest tiny particles of these remarkable materials from animals and fish we eat, and possibly from the air and soil and clothing we use.

So what’s our conclusion? Our choices when we eat out, actually make a difference, even if what we choose ends up in its proper place in a landfill or recycling station, not on the side of the road. We have impact and a lot of choices.

As for the title of this piece? Yes. We decided that ketchup packets are immortal. They seemed completely unaffected by microbes, water, soil, fungi–you name it. We opened several to see, and the bright red sauce squeezed out smelling as perky as though we’d just taken the packets from a sanitized counter. We’ve tried to avoid the restaurants that hand them out, ever since the kid did her science project.

And of course, she had a lovely time eating all that fast food!

Posted in: Blog, education, food, science

Leave a Reply