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Brief Published: 19 Oct 2021

Plastic Polymer Breaks Down in Sunlight & Air

Researchers have developed a sunlight-degradable plastic

As outlined in The Plastics Landscape 2021, degradable plastics are still a grey area, especially in terms of composability and subsequent harmful residues. Researchers in Wuhan, China, have developed a promising new solution – a plastic polymer that decomposes in sunlight and air alone, with no microplastic fragments left behind.

The discovery, from the team at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, sees the petroleum-based polymer disintegrate rapidly within a week through a process of photo-oxidative degradation.

When exposed, sunlight irradiation breaks the polymer’s double- and triple-bonded carbon structure, turning it into succinic acid; a naturally occurring, non-toxic compound that can be used commercially in numerous industries, including food, beauty and pharmaceuticals.

While the sun-sensitive material is not suitable for packaging, its stability in dark, oxygen-free environments means it has potential for use inside sealed products like electronics, making devices, such as smartphones, easier to dispose of at the end of their service life.

Additionally, integrating the polymer alongside other biodegradable plastics could help speed up the breakdown of these materials in landfills.

Such developments are crucial for the tech industry (and all others with a reliance on plastics) going forward, especially as e-waste is set to double from 2014 levels by 2030. See our Look Ahead 2022 for more on Tech’s Climate Reckoning, and see Remastering Metals for more on repurposing e-waste.

For further examples of compostable and biodegradable plastic alternatives, see Reinventing the Retail Bag and Sustainable Materials for Eyewear.