Unzipping Polymers to Create Destructable Plastics
Posted on: August 31, 2018
Single use plastics like this coffee lid, plastic packaging and disposable water bottle rarely end up being recycled and often last decades in landfills and waterways. Researchers are working on creating plastics that will break down on demand and could be more easily recycled. (Photo: Ruby Reid-Sharp)

InfoSuperior has been following plastic pollution issues in Lake Superior closely and a recent New York Times article about plastic has caught our eye. The article details work being done by Dr. Feinberg and Jeffrey Moore at the University of Illinois, Marc Hillmyer at the University of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Gillies at Western University in London Ontario, on a potential replacement for overly durable single-use plastics that too often end up in our lakes, rivers and oceans.

Plastic is normally created out of highly durable long-lasting polymers that do not break down. Biodegradable plastics are one form of degradable plastic that have been embraced by the general public; however, these plastics require a biologically active environment with a large number of microbes in order to actually degrade, and biodegradable plastics rarely end up in such healthy soils.

The plastics that these chemists are currently researching and developing are built to self-destruct. Instead of using long-lasting stable polymers, these plastics are created from unstable polymers that easily “unzip” into there molecular components which can then be recycled into new polymers. The polymer chains are held together by end-caps or interconnected in closed networks that can be designed to release at the introduction of a certain trigger: temperature, light, air composition, etc.

Currently cost-effectiveness is the greatest barrier facing the use of self-destructible plastics, they just can not compete with the very low cost of traditional plastics. These new unzippable polymer plastics do have interesting potential for medicine, electronics and foam. To learn more check out the New York Times Article “Designing the Death of Plastic“!

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