Biodegradability of Synthetic Plastics and Polymeric Materials: An Illusion or Reality in Waste Managements?

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Ji-Dong Gu, Elizabeth Ka Wing Wu


Petroleum-based plastics are an indispensable part of our daily life now because they are flexible, convenient, light weight, waterproof, and also have good mechanical strength and economical. They are especially suitable in products packaging, but they accumulate in soils, rivers and oceans, resulting in undesirable environmental and ecological hazards. Conventional plastics wastes in landfills occupy a much higher proportion of space because of their light-weight and extremely low biodegradation rate under anaerobic conditions. Composting is a treatment process to deal with biodegradable plastics (BPs) wastes and diverts a fraction of the wastes from landfilling to provide a feasible solution to the waste management problem. Biodegradability and degradation rate of plastics products depend on the fundamental chemical characteristics of the specific plastics mainly while environmental conditions and the establishment of an active degrading population of microorganisms contribute to a small extent of the fate of plastics after disposal. As the biodegradation rate varies among different plastics, a group of testing methods are available for assessing the degradability of different plastics and their products. Plasticizers in plastics and polymeric materials deserve a special attention up on their dispersal and ecological impact because of their endocrine-disrupting activity. The widely used phthalate esters are biodegradable by indigenous microorganisms in the environments, but the large quantity of them used is a serious issue to the environment and ecological health. However, there is an apparent cost difference between biodegradable and synthetic plastics, which hinder the commercialization of biodegradable ones for daily use. Separation of waste collection and education can contribute to the plastic waste management. It is unrealistic that biodegradable plastics are the solution to the problems facing today’s society on waste management. The ultimate goal is to reduce the use by society members so that amount of waste generated can be reduced so that waste products can be reduced from the sources.


Plastics; Biodegradable plastics; Landfill; Composting; Plasticizer; Phthalate ester; Endocrine-disrupting activity

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