Scientists have created a form of plastic that degrades under the exposure of air and sunlight, in what is potentially a major advancement in tackling plastic waste. The scientists from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, were conducting trials with colour-changing plastics in 2020 when they discovered that it breaks down in fragments when exposed to air and light for a week.
The plastic, which has a similar appearance to film, is believed to be malleable and, according to co-author, Liang Luo, of the Huazhong University study, it could be used in mobile phones and other electronic devices in the future.
The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society states that the current breakthrough of digitalisation has motivated more innovative variations of plastic which as a result, are more eco-friendly:
“The rapid development of digital society and artificial intelligence has triggered explosive demands for specialty plastics, especially conjugated polymers [a polymer which can create electronic properties] that are instrumental for flexible electronics and smart devices. The recycling and degradation of postconsumer conjugated polymers have become more important than ever to reduce the pressure to the environment.”
Although the new plastic is not an alternative to day-to-day items such as plastic food bags and water bottles, it could still lower the level of plastic use and waste if commodified.
However, Luo told the Science blog, PNAS, that it “could be 5 to 10 years” until commercialization happens, but confirmed that his team “. . . will continue to explore the degradation of plastics.”
Scientists in Berkeley, California conducted a similar study in 2019 to that of Huazhong University and they found a degradable plastic that could disintegrate in acid and then reform, called poly(diketoenamine) or PDK.
On par with the Huazhong University study, the Berkeley scientists found that the degradable plastic is less harmful to the environment and a contributory factor towards waste reduction. According to their study: “The ease with which poly(diketoenamine)s can be manufactured, used, recycled and re-used—without losing value—points to new directions in designing sustainable polymers with minimal environmental impact.”
According to the Independent, The Californian scientists reported that PDK could be recreated and even “upcycled” into a higher quality material. But for this to have a far-reaching impact, the current recycling infrastructure would need to be changed and adapted.
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The Lead researcher of the Berkeley scientists, Brett Helms, believes that the need for developing this infrastructure is crucial: “We’re at a critical point where we need to think about the infrastructure needed to modernize recycling facilities for future waste sorting and processing . . .”
Helms added: “If these facilities were designed to recycle or upcycle PDK and related plastics, then we would be able to more effectively divert plastic from landfills and the oceans. This is an exciting time to start thinking about how to design both materials and recycling facilities to enable circular plastics.”
Berkeley scientists released a further study in April 2021, which highlights the benefits of PDK, if it is widely used by manufacturers. Nemi Vora, who is one of seven authors of the study, explains that promoting the capability of PDK is the motivation of the study:
“[D]riving sustainability is the heart of this project. PDKs were designed to be recycled from the get-go, and since the beginning, the team has been working to refine the production and recycling processes for PDK so that the material could be inexpensive and easy enough to be deployed at commercial scales in anything from packaging to cars.”
There needs to be a major course of action, in order to improve the level of plastic recycling and tackle the extent of plastic pollution. According to a 2017 Science Advances paper entitled ‘Production, Use And Fate Of All Plastics Ever Made’, out of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced globally, only 9% was recycled, highlighting the sheer scale of the issue.
The issue of plastic pollution is a difficult task to manage, with the UN estimating that approximately 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are currently produced each year, which is “nearly equivalent to the weight of the entire human population.”
Governments and private firms normally dispose of these materials, filling oceans with plastics, which ultimately worsen water pollution. The degradable plastics created in China and California, have been created to offer a solution to the waste problem, by reducing the use of plastic.
And whilst these two plastics may fulfill their role, the potential degradation of other conjugated polymer plastics, has not been confirmed. Materials chemist Zhibin Guan from the University of California told PANAS, “it will take more work to demonstrate the generality of this mechanism,” which means there is much to be discovered.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com.— In the Featured Photo: Plastic Bottles of water. Featured Photo Credit: Jonathan Chng