Biodegradable plastics are plastics that will decompose in natural aerobic (composting) and anaerobic (landfill) environments. Biodegradation of plastics can be achieved by enabling microorganisms in the environment to metabolize the molecular structure of plastic films to produce an inert humus-like material that is less harmful to the environment. They may be composed of either bioplastics, which are plastics whose components are derived from renewable raw materials, or petroleum-based plastics which utilize an additive. The use of bio-active compounds compounded with swelling agents ensures that, when combined with heat and moisture, they expand the plastic's molecular structure and allow the bio-active compounds to metabolize and neutralize the plastic.
Biodegradable plastics typically are produced in two forms: injection molded (solid, 3D shapes), typically in the form of disposable food service items, and films, typically organic fruit packaging and collection bags for leaves and grass trimmings, and agricultural mulch.
Research has been done on biodegradable plastics that break down with exposure to sunlight (e.g., ultra-violet radiation), water or dampness, bacteria, enzymes, wind abrasion and some instances rodent pest or insect attack are also included as forms of biodegradation or environmental degradation. It is clear some of these modes of degradation will only work if the plastic is exposed at the surface, while other modes will only be effective if certain conditions exist in landfill or composting systems. Starch powder has been mixed with plastic as a filler to allow it to degrade more easily, but it still does not lead to complete breakdown of the plastic. Some researchers have actually genetically engineered bacteria that synthesize a completely biodegradable plastic, but this material, such as Biopol, is expensive at present. The German chemical company BASF makes Ecoflex, a fully biodegradable polyester for food packaging applications.
There are two main types of biodegradable plastics in the market: hydro-biodegradable plastics (HBP) and oxo-biodegradable plastics (OBP). Both will first undergo chemical degradation by hydrolysis and oxidation respectively. This results in their physical disintegration and a drastic reduction in their molecular weight. These smaller, lower molecular weight fragments are then amenable to biodegradation.
Biodegradable plastics are not a panacea, however. Some critics claim that a potential environmental disadvantage of certified biodegradable plastics is that the carbon that is locked up in them is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Biodegradable plastics from natural materials, such as vegetable crop derivatives or animal products, sequester CO2 during the phase when they're growing, only to release CO2 when they're decomposing, so there is no net gain in carbon dioxide emissions.
For More Information: Biodegradable Plastic
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