Plastics have recently become the “bad guy” of materials, mainly because they don’t degrade easily or quickly. People throw away plastic and clog landfills or create unsightly trash. This has caused major problems for many wildlife. Marine animals, in particular, often get tangled up in plastic waste. Even worse, tiny plastic particles (” microplastics “) can damage the digestive systems of the animals that eat them.
As a species, humans aren’t very good at dealing with the amount of plastic waste we produce. However, plastic is a very useful material! You may be surprised to learn that plastic isn’t all bad. Let’s look at the useful aspects of plastic.
As mentioned above, one of the problems with plastic is that it does not degrade particularly well in the environment. Chemically, most plastics contain long carbon chains that are very stable and don’t react well with air or water. The search is on to find chain molecules that will behave like plastics but degrade well once we are finished using them. Some materials (such as polylactic acid) do behave in this way, but at the moment they are still a long way from a perfect solution.
Although technically ‘biodegradable’, some of these materials require very specific conditions in order to actually degrade, such as the presence of particular microbes or high heat. However, really biodegradable plastics could be such useful materials that a lot of researchers and companies are trying to make them. Encouragingly, some researchers have demonstrated plastic materials that could degrade in household compost or water. This is a research area that could have a large impact in the future.