EDITORIAL OPEN Plastic, a highly useful and convenient material, is also one of the world’s greatest environmental problems, yet both industry and society are still heavily reliant on its usage. On World Environment Day, Nature Communications asks: will biodegradable polymers alleviate plastic’s environmental impact? rom initial conception, plastic was problem, a new plastic future is also hailed a wondrous material. Fol- required. lowing 80 years of innovation Reduce, reuse and recycle have been involving disciplines spread across embraced as the common approach to Findustry and academia, mass pro- combat the escalating plastic waste pro- duction of plastic became successful and blem. The dream is to create a circular revolutionised consumerism in a post-World plastic economy where products are 100% War II generation . Plastic, although a simple recyclable, used for as long as possible, and 3,6 synthetic polymer consisting of small mole- their waste is minimised . Until recently cules (monomers) linked together in a repe- this strategy has lacked success, but with an titive formation, is extremely versatile; with increasing number of new initiatives, sup- properties ranging from, resistance to corro- port from governments and leading man- sion, light weight, high strength, transpar- ufacturers committing to achievable ency, low toxicity to durability. Used by targets, change is being accomplished . For almost every industry in the world, from food now, progress remains slow despite packaging to space exploration, plastic is the advances in molecular level recycling, ultimate commodity of convenience. House- which enables different plastics to be 7,8 hold names in the plastic industry include recycled together . Recycling is costly, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), poly- reliant on human behavioural changes and ethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), poly- produces lower quality materials, in terms styrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). of both thermal and mechanical proper- Although the ease of ties . Additionally, recycling does not curb plastic production gen- our plastic addiction; if we want to main- “Durability, one of plastic’s erates cheap goods, the tain our current lifestyles modiﬁcation to linear plastic economy plastic manufacture needs to go hand in greatest assets is now its curse adopted sees 90% of hand with effective recycling. products used once and Recent success in reducing carrier bag (PE) —its robustness means that then discarded, thus and drinks bottles (PET) waste in Europe plastics stay in our creating a global envir- suggests lifestyle adjustments are possible, but onmental crisis. Since plastic is ingrained in modern society and a environment for hundreds of the plastic revolution, future free from plastic seems unlikely. 6.3 billion tonnes of Complete alteration of human behaviour is years.” plastic waste has been difﬁcult to attain, as indicated by the fact that 2 3 produced worldwide . We store roughly only 9% of plastic waste is recycled .There- 79% of plastic waste in landﬁlls, which fore in addition to these three solutions to the results in up to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic waste problem (reducing, reusing and plastic waste entering oceans via rivers recycling), we need a fundamental change in 3,4 every year . Durability, one of plastic’s order to make a noticeable impact on the greatest assets is now its curse–its robust- plastic waste seeping into our environment. A ness means that plastics stay in our envir- new plastic future in which biodegradable onment for hundreds of years. Even when polymers replace conventional plastics could degraded, plastic never truly leaves the be the answer. environment but is present as smaller Biodegradable polymers can break down pieces invisible to the naked eye (micro- into smaller molecules, such as CO ,CH 2 4 plastics) that are choking marine life and and H O, by microorganisms under aerobic propagating up the food chain . Alongside or anaerobic conditions. Although not always a solution to the existing plastic waste required, abiotic chemical reactions like NATURE COMMUNICATIONS (2018) 9:2157 DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04565-2 www.nature.com/naturecommunications 1 | | | 1234567890():,; EDITORIAL NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04565-2 AbdulRaheemMohamed/EyeEm/Getty photodegradation, oxidation and hydrolysis degradation time compared to current the environment, but further developments can also aid the degradation process .There plastics (~12 months), which is believed to are still required before PLA or other biode- are many examples of biodegradable poly- prevent its accumulation in our environ- gradable polymers can replace existing plas- 10,15 mers, some are produced from plants, ani- ment if implemented on an industrial tics . Cost is not the only roadblock for mals or micro-organisms, others are purely scale . However, speciﬁc micro-organisms such materials. Governments, society and synthetic (man-made). The most commonly present in composting plants at slightly industry have learnt from past mistakes and known synthetic biodegradable polymers are elevated temperatures are required for this realise that production of new materials must polylactide (PLA), polyglycolide (PGA), process; if not available the degradation consider their source and end of life together polycaprolactone (PCL), polyhydroxyalk- time can be longer. The small molecules with the essential criteria of production scal- anoates (PHA), poly(butylene succinate) formed during biodegradation do not ability and material properties. In order to (PBS) and poly(butylene adipate-co-ter- impact the environment in the same way as successfully substitute current plastics with ephthalate) (PBAT) . microplastics, but there are concerns that biodegradable polymers, we not only need PLA is considered the most promising they will add to our greenhouse gas (GHG) industry and academia to work together but candidate to replace current plastics. Unlike emissions. That said, life cycle analysis has also different disciplines (chemistry, engi- other synthetic biodegradable polymers and found that less net GHG generation occurs neering, materials science, biogeochemistry even conventional plastics, which are pro- during PLA production compared to cur- and climate science) to collaborate. Similar to duced from petrochemicals, PLA is formed rent petroleum-based plastics . the current plastics we use, this process will from sustainable resources (lactic acid in Although biodegradable polymers and in take time and key multi-disciplinary devel- 9,10 corn) . However, if such biodegradable particular PLA have been the focus of much opments will be required. We hope polymers were produced on an industrial research and patents over the last decade, Nature Communications provides the inter- scale, competition for land with food crops their production has still not reached the level disciplinary, open-access platform to dis- 10,11,14 maybecomeanissue.Goodmechanical of PE, PET and PP due to cost .Lactic seminate this research to all relevant stake- strength and low toxicity have already led acid is not as readily available compared to holders. We have begun the journey towards to PLA’s successful implementation in the starting materials used for current plastics a new plastic future involving biodegradable packaging and biomedical applications . (e.g. ethylene for PE). Additionally, lactic acid polymers; we need to persevere together to Unfortunately, PLA has one important is converted to lactide before PLA can form reach the ﬁnish line in order to protect our downside–its poor thermal properties limit its andthisextra-stepaddstothe ﬁnal environment. 11,14 applicability at high temperatures (above expenditure . 60 °C) . Biodegradable polymers along Despite PLA’s shortcomings, interest in with reducing, reusing and recycling this material has not waned due to its faster could impact the accumulation of plastics in 2 NATURE COMMUNICATIONS (2018) 9:2157 DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04565-2 www.nature.com/naturecommunications | | | NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04565-2 EDITORIAL References 8. PET Cradle-to-Cradle solution “..a Game 14. Dusselier, M., Van Wouwe, P., Dewaele, A., 1. Feldman, D. Polymer history. Des. Monomers Changer..” http://www.ioniqa.com/pet-recycling/ Jacobs, P. A. & Sels, B. F. Shape-selective zeolite Polym. 11,1–15 (2008). (2018). catalysis for bioplastics production. Science 349, 2. The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future 9. Luckachan, G. E. & Pillai, C. K. S. Biodegradable 78–80 (2015). of Plastics. https://www. polymers–a review on recent trends and emerging 15. Shen, L., Worrell, E. & Patel, M. Present and ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/the- perspectives. J. Polym. Environ. 19, 637–676 future development in plastics from biomass. new-plastics-economy-rethinking-the-future-of- (2011). Biofuels, Bioprod. Bioref. 4,25–40 (2010). plastics (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2016). 10. Elvers, D., Song, C. H., Steinbüchel, A. & Leker, J. 3. Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R. & Law, K. L. Production, Technology trends in biodegradable polymers: Open Access This article is licensed use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Sci. Adv. 3, evidence from patent analysis. Polym. Rev. 56, under a Creative Commons Attribution e1700782 (2017). 584–606 (2016). 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, 4. Lebreton, L. C. M. et al. River plastic emissions to 11. Jamshidian, M., Tehrany, E. A., Imran, M., adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium the world’s oceans. Nat. Commun. 8, 15611 Jacquot, M. & Desobry, S. Poly-lactic acid: or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the (2017). production, applications, nanocomposites, and original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the 5. Romera-Castillo, C., Pinto, M., Langer, T. M., release studies. Compr. Rev. Food Sci. Food Saf. 9, Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were Álvarez-Salgado, X. A. & Herndl, G. J. Dissolved 552–571 (2010). made. 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To view a copy of this license, visit http:// (European Commission, 2018). assessment of Poly(Lactic acid) (pla): comparison creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. 7. Eagan, J. M. et al. Combining polyethylene and between chemical recycling, mechanical recycling polypropylene: enhanced performance with PE/ and composting. J. Polym. Environ. 24, 372–384 iPP multiblock polymers. Science 355, 814–816 (2016). © Macmillan Publishers Ltd, Part of Springer Nature 2018 (2017). NATURE COMMUNICATIONS (2018) 9:2157 DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04565-2 www.nature.com/naturecommunications 3 | | |
Nature Communications – Springer Journals
Published: Jun 5, 2018
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