Plastic can degrade in two months when it sits in sunlight, thanks to development by Indian scientists.
A three-member team from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Matunga has developed a catalyst that creates an oxodegradable polymer when it is mixed with plastic granules that are found mostly commonly in packaging, writes Snehal Rebello of the Hindustan Times. The catalyst helps break down the plastic into smaller chains when it is exposed to sunlight.
Plastic is not usually biodegradable. “Plastic does not degrade for years because it is chemically inert. Indiscriminate use of the polymer resulting in litter affects the environment and pollutes the earth,” says professor RN Jagtap, head of the institute’s department of polymer and surface engineering, who is a part of the study.
Working on the project for four years, the research team derived the catalyst from metals. Because the team is applying for a patent for the development, it did not divulge the specific type of metals from which the catalyst is derived, but it made assurances that it is not derived from toxic heavy metals.
When the plastic degrades because of the presence of the catalyst, there could be an added benefit. “The drop in molecular weight gives micro-organisms (present in the soil) access to carbon and hydrogen, making plastic a nutrient for bacteria and fungi to feed on that results in complete degradation,” Jagtap says.
Similarly, Yale researchers discovered a fungus in the Ecuadoran rain forest that breaks down polyurethane. The fungus is an endophyte, a microorganism that lives within the inner tissues of plants, and breaks down plastic in an anaerobic environment.
Other scientists commented on the Indian researchers’ development. “Oxodegradable plastics degrade in the presence of ultraviolet rays and heat and can also be recycled with normal plastics,” says professor Anil K. Bhowmick, director of the Indian Institute of Technology in Patna, who is on the editorial board of Journal of Applied Polymer Science. “The disadvantage is that there are certain metallic elements that carry risk of environmental pollution. Hence, their nature and level of use are to be properly controlled.”
The Matunga researchers plan to conduct further studies. They want to see whether the crumbled oxodegradable plastic breaks down further within two months.
Source: “Bio-Degradable Plastic Developed by City Scientists,” Hindustan Times, 6/18/12
Image by Nino Barbieri, used under its Creative Commons license.
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.