The term "biodegradable" has been used over the past few years, to describe plastics or packaging that could potentially be metabolized by microorganisms in nature, with complete breakdown to CO2/Methane, water and biomass. However, there is significant confusion and controversy surrounding biodegradable plastics since many suppliers have used the term to loosely describe their material/packaging without specifying the conditions under which the material would degrade in nature. For instance, some plastics (like PLA) will only degrade under industrial composting conditions, while some others (like PHA) can break down under a wider range of conditions and environments (industrial, backyard, marine). Given this widespread confusion and the misuse of the "biodegradable" term, many global government and industry organizations have issued guidelines to restrict or eliminate the unqualified use of biodegradable as a descriptor of plastics or packaging. These include the European Commission guidelines (European Plastics Strategy) and the Federal Trade Commission Green Guides in the US.
In line with such guidelines, Ubuntoo's recommends that companies providing biodegradable materials, products or packaging:
1.Avoid unqualified use of the term "biodegradable" to describe their products
2.Any claim of biodegradability should be accompanied by a description of specific conditions and environments under which the material or product will undergo degradation in nature
3.It is strongly recommended that companies provide globally accepted certifications or testing for various biodegradability claims (such as the BPA certification for industrial composting)
Further in line with the position articulated by the European Commission as well as major CPG companies, Ubuntoo recommends that "biodegradable" plastics should not be considered a solution for littering (or worse a license to litter). Appropriate collection and end-of-life solutions (such as industrial composting or home composting) need to be put into place to avoid biodegradable plastics ending up as litter in the environment.
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Some polymers, such as polyethylene terephthalate used for soft drink bottles, can be depolymerized back to their original monomer forms. This process allows to repolymerize virgin material for repeated use.
Eugene Chen, a professor of chemistry, leads the lab that’s developing new materials and methods for waste-free, sustainable polymers. As described in the journal Science, he developed with his team a polymer based on a five-membered ring cyclic monomer derived from γ-butyrolactone that could be produced at ambient temperature and mild conditions.
In their research, the high-molecular-weight polymer exhibited high crystallinity and thermal stability. However, at hot enough conditions, or at lower temperatures in the presence of a zinc chloride catalyst, the polymer could be returned to its starting monomers and thus recycled into new material.
The new polymer technology has only been demonstrated at the academic lab scale. There is still a lot of work to be done to perfect the patent-pending monomer and polymer production processes that the team has invented.
With the suppport of a seed grant from CSU Ventures, the chemists are optimizing their monomer synthesis process and developing new, even more cost-effective routes to such polymers. They’re working as well on scalability issues on their monomer-polymer-monomer recycling setup, while further researching new chemical structures for even better recyclable materials.
“It would be our dream to see this chemically recyclable polymer technology materialize in the marketplace,” Eugene Chen said.
The paper’s first author is CSU research scientist Jian-Bo Zhu. Co-authors are graduate students Eli Watson and Jing Tang.