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Breakthrough in Degradable Plastic

Scientists Develop Biodegradable Plastic That Easily Breaks Down with Just Heat And Water

Vipin Saini

Scientists Develop Biodegradable Plastic That Easily Breaks Down with Just Heat And Water 

Curbing ​plastic ​pollution is ​one of the ​crucial ​environmental ​challenges that ​humanity is ​facing. Over ​the last ​several years, ​more focus has ​been given ​to ​compostable ​and biodegradable ​plastics but ​these require ​specific ​processes to ​break down. ​Researchers ​have now ​announced a new ​approach to ​plastic that ​can almost ​completely ​biodegrade ​under ​conditions that ​can be much ​more easily ​achieved. ​ 

Reporting in Nature, scientists ​have embedded ​special ​molecules in ​plastic made of ​polylactic acid,​ or PLA, and ​polycaprolactone,​ or PCL. These ​are already ​commonly used ​in compostable ​plastic. The ​special ​molecules used ​are enzymes ​that have the ​ability to ​degrade the ​plastic and ​turn it into ​lactic acid (​which can feed ​microbes in the ​soil) when the ​right ​conditions are ​met. 

The enzymes ​are enveloped ​in polymers and ​then placed ​inside the ​plastic fibers. ​They did not ​change the ​fabric of the ​material, which ​can be employed ​as a normal ​polyester ​plastic. The ​magic happens ​when the ​plastic is ​exposed to both ​water and heat. ​ 

Under ​industrial ​composting ​conditions, the ​team's ​special PLA ​degraded within ​six days at ​50°C (​122°F). For ​the PCL, being ​around 40°C ​(104°F) for ​two days was ​enough to do ​the trick. As ​it currently ​stands, this ​method can ​biodegrade up ​to 98 percent ​of the plastic ​into small ​molecules and, ​importantly, ​doesn’t ​leave ​behind ​any microplastics. 

"People are ​now prepared to ​move into ​biodegradable ​polymers for ​single-use ​plastics, but ​if it turns out ​that it creates ​more problems ​than it's ​worth, then the ​policy might ​revert back," ​senior author ​Professor Ting ​Xu said in ​a ​statement. "We are ​basically ​saying that we ​are on the ​right track. We ​can solve this ​continuing ​problem of ​single-use ​plastics not ​being ​biodegradable." ​ 

The team also ​verified that ​the modified ​polyester ​doesn’t ​degrade at low ​temperatures or ​during brief ​periods of ​dampness. That ​means that you ​could have a ​shirt made of ​this material ​and it won'​t be affected ​by washing on a ​cool temperature ​or sweat. They ​actually kept ​some plastic at ​room temperature ​for three ​months without ​degradation. ​ 

Slightly ​warmer water ​did begin the ​process. This ​is not a ​drawback, ​however. It ​means a water-​based compost ​approach for ​domestic ​composts. ​ 

"It turns out ​that composting ​is not ​enough ​– people ​want to compost ​in their home ​without getting ​their hands ​dirty, they ​want to compost ​in water," Xu ​added. "So, ​that is what we ​tried to see. ​We used warm ​tap water. Just ​warm it up to ​the right ​temperature, ​then put it in, ​and we see in a ​few days it ​disappears."

Xu and her ​team are now ​investigating ​applying this ​method to other ​types of ​plastics as ​well as having ​more control on ​the level of ​biodegradability ​so that the ​plastic can ​partly ​biodegrade and ​the rest can be ​recycled into ​new plastic. ​ 

"It is good ​for millennials ​to think about ​this and start ​a conversation ​that will ​change the way ​we interface ​with Earth," Xu ​said. "Look at ​all the wasted ​stuff we throw ​away: clothing, ​shoes, ​electronics ​like cellphones ​and computers. ​We are taking ​things from the ​Earth at a ​faster rate ​than we can ​return them. ​Don't go ​back to Earth ​to mine for ​these materials,​ but mine ​whatever you ​have, and then ​convert it to ​something else."​ 

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