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Duct Tape Environmental Impact | Biodegradation & Recycling

Duct tape is both useful and affordable. That used to be enough of an endorsement. However, as everyone becomes more aware of environmental degradation, it is important for us to consider the impact that everyday products, like duct tape, can have on our planet.

The environmental impact of duct tape is determined by the material that it is made from. In addition to this, however, we have to consider how it influences other materials, like paper and plastic, on which it is used.

Duct tape is not considered to be biodegradable because of the polyethylene coating. In addition, some materials used for the fabric mesh and adhesive layer can be non-biodegradable as well. Duct tape cannot be recycled because of the adhesive and the fact that the layers are very difficult to separate.

What Is Duct Tape Made Of?

Generally, duct tape is made of three layers of different materials.

The outermost layer is made of a coating of polyethylene, which is a type of plastic. Being a plastic, the polyethylene makes the duct tape water-resistant and gives it flexibility and resistance to fire.

Components of a duct tape

The polyethylene coating covers the main component of duct tape, which is fabric mesh. The fabric mesh has a high thread count, which makes the duct tape strong and durable. The fabric component may be comprised of polyester, cotton (or a mixture of both), nylon, or even fiberglass mesh.

Finally, the last layer that gives the duct tape its stickiness is a rubber-based adhesive. In this case, natural rubber or synthetic rubber may be used.

Finally, the duct tape is usually rolled around a cardboard tube. Although, in some cases, this tube may be made of plastic or metal.

Will Duct Tape Biodegrade?

For a material to biodegrade, it should be readily broken down by bacteria and other biological organisms, like fungi, into its constituent elements within a short period of time.

For example, it can take a few days or weeks for biodegradable materials to decompose, but it can take non-biodegradable materials, such as plastics, tens or even thousands of years to break down.

Firstly, the polyethylene layer of duct tape is not biodegradable.

Polyethylene is one of the most popular plastics in the world. It is synthetic and is designed to be durable and resistant to decomposition. Hence, it does not degrade easily. This is great for your repairs but not for the environment.

Even if polyethylene does break down over time, it will leave traces of microplastics (tiny pieces of plastic), which can be damaging to the environment.

The fabric component of duct tape may or may not be biodegradable, depending on what fabric it is made of.

If it is made solely of cotton, then this layer of the tape is considered biodegradable because cotton is a natural material and breaks down easily.

If, as is more often the case, duct tape is made of a mixture of cotton and polyester or other synthetic materials like nylon, it is not biodegradable and will likely release microplastics as it slowly degrades.

Close up of microplastics on fingers

The rubber-based adhesive part of duct tape may be biodegradable if it is made from natural rubber.

Synthetic rubber, on the other hand, will not biodegrade because the it contains toxic chemicals that prevent microbes from breaking it down.

Finally, if duct tape is rolled onto a cardboard roll, then the roll should be biodegradable since it is made of natural materials (cellulose).

However, if the roll is lined with plastic (which it likely is) to keep it waterproof, then it is not biodegradable.

Can Duct Tape Be Recycled?

Whether or not something is recyclable can be complicated to define because it may differ between different countries and states.

Generally, objects that can be sorted, reprocessed, and reused are considered to be recyclable, so long as there is a market for the material to be used to make something else.

Some of the individual components of duct tape are considered recyclable.

For example, it is possible to recycle polyethylene and cotton and cardboard.

However, when materials are recycled, they are sorted and filtered to remove contaminants before being melted or combined to form the recycled product.

Unfortunately, this means that duct tape cannot be recycled because it is extremely difficult to separate each of the materials to allow them to be recycled, and the glue-like adhesive isn’t commonly recyclable.

For example, while materials with a little bit of glue or adhesive can be recycled, if there is too much of it (as there would be in duct tape), it contaminates the product too much to allow recycling, which would clog up the machines involved in recycling.

On the other hand, it is likely that you will be able to recycle the roll on which the duct tape is wound. It’s not much, but it’s something.

Will Duct Tape Affect Paper Recycling?

From what we have learned in the previous section, we know that recycling requires materials to be separated out to produce new products from old items.

If you want to recycle paper or boxes that have duct tape on them, it is probably best to remove the tape before recycling them.

Duct tape used on a cardboard

That being said, paper and cardboard can be recycled with tape on them, because they are often soaked in water in the beginning stages of the process.

Duct tape is water-resistant, but not waterproof, so this means that when boxes and paper are soaked long enough at a recycling plant, the duct tape should peel off so that it can be filtered out without contaminating the process.

However, this may depend on the recycling plant to which the paper is sent.

Furthermore, if there are large amounts of duct tape on the paper or cardboard you wish to recycle, it could become problematic, and there is the risk that recycling machinery will be clogged up.

Overall, sending a paper item with a little bit of duct tape on it for recycling shouldn’t be a problem, but ideally the duct tape should be removed.

Never Burn Duct Tape

If you are determined to dispose of your duct tape as responsibly as possible, you may be wondering if burning duct tape is a viable option considering that it is neither biodegradable nor recyclable.

Unfortunately, it is not a good idea to burn duct tape.

This is because burning it releases toxic chemicals, which can be dangerous for your health and for the environment.

Again, this comes down to what makes up the duct tape.

While burning the fabric part of the tape shouldn’t cause major concern, the polyethylene and rubber adhesive layers produce toxic gases and foul-smelling smoke when they are burned.


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