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Plastic waste is such a problem that it causes flooding in some parts of the world. As plastic polymers do not easily decompose, plastic pollution can clog up entire rivers. If it reaches the sea it ends up in enormous floating garbage patches. 

In a bid to tackle the global problem of plastic pollution, researchers developed a degradable plastic that breaks down after being exposed to sunlight and air for only a week — a massive improvement over the decades, or even centuries, it can take for some everyday plastic items to decompose.

In a paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS), the researchers detailed their new environmentally degradable plastic that breaks down in sunlight into succinic acid, a naturally occurring non-toxic small molecule that doesn’t leave microplastic fragments in the environment.

The scientists used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectroscopy chemical characterization to reveal their findings on the plastic, a petroleum-based polymer.

In a press statement, study coauthor Liang Luo, an organic materials scientist at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, revealed that the new degradable plastic could be mixed with other plastics to make more durable items. Such items to be more durable during use, while having the added benefit of decomposing faster in landfills.

Upcycling plastic for food, pharmaceuticals, and jet fuel

Luo also says the degradable plastic could be particularly useful in electronics. When in use, the plastic would be encased within the electronics device and would, therefore, be shielded from air and sunlight, allowing it to last for years. Once at a landfill, the device would be broken up and the plastics would likely be exposed to the sun, meaning they would decompose within days.

The byproduct of the plastic, succinic acid, could also be upcycled for commercial use in the pharmaceutical and food industries, Luo explained. In a similar vein, researchers from Washington State University recently developed a new method that upcycles non-biodegradable plastics into jet fuel.

Before devising the new plastic, Luo originally set out to create a polymer that changes color with pH, allowing it to be used for sensor technologies. However, during that process he discovered that the resulting plastic easily degraded, meaning it was better suited for making more environmentally friendly plastics. 

Next, Luo and his team aim to put more time into studying degradable plastics, with a view to commercializing the material within the next 5 to 10 years. 

Though biodegradable plastic would be a step in the right direction, much more is needed to stem the tide on the 10 million tons of plastic waste that end up in the oceans each year, according to the World Economic Forum.

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