Plastic has been at the forefront of environmental pollution due to it being so hard to break down and decompose. Burning it releases toxic fumes so that isn’t an option either. Normal plastic takes up to 1000 years to decompose. However plastic bags we use daily take 10-20 years while plastic bottles take around 450 years to decompose. This poses a serious issue especially when most of the plastic waste is dumped into the seas. But science is here to help us again.
A new type of plastic has been developed that can break down in just a week when exposed to sunlight and air. The material was discovered as a byproduct of another research. The research was done by China’s Huazhong University of Science and Technology. The study’s author Liang Luo and his team were working on an advanced type of chemical sensor. The goal of that research was to develop a polymer film that could change color. The research was published in the journal, American Chemical Society.
The polymer film they wanted to develop would change color in response to pH levels and the process was to be driven by the material’s molecular structure. But instead, they got a material in which the chains of monomers were giving the material a deep red color but this color would immediately go away when those bonds were broken and the material broke apart.
Luo and his team found out that the material’s color would fade away and it would break apart after several days in the sunlight. So apparently they may have just discovered a plastic material that has a really low life as compared to regular plastic. The material could offer a very environmentally friendly alternative to regular plastic. However, the new material’s molecular structure does mean that it can’t be used conventionally like as a soda bottle or plastic bag.
It could be used in electronics where it isn’t exposed to sunlight and air. The material decomposes quickly and leaves no microplastic fragments behind so the environmental impact is negligible. The material could be used in smartphones where it would be isolated from air or sunlight. The team estimates that if properly isolated, the material could last for years and then could be disposed of just as easily when the product’s life ends. The team’s future goals are to continue to map out all the possibilities the material might have.
The only byproduct when making the new polymer is succinic acid but that could easily be used for commercial use in other things. The team will be looking into types of degradable plastics but they also noted that commercialization of these materials is still years away.