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The term biodegradable means that a substance can be broken down into simpler substances by the activities of living organisms, and therefore is unlikely to remain in the environment. The reason most plastics are not biodegradable is because their long polymer molecules are too large and too tightly bonded together to be broken apart and used by decomposer organisms. However, plastics based on natural plant polymers that come from wheat or corn starch have molecules that can be more easily broken down by microbes.

Starch is a natural polymer. It is a white, granular carbohydrate produced by plants during photosynthesis and it serves as the plant's energy store. Many plants contain large amounts of starch. Starch can be processed directly into a bioplastic but, because it is soluble in water, articles made from starch will swell and deform when exposed to moisture, and this limits its use. This problem can be overcome by changing starch into a different polymer. First, starch is harvested from corn, wheat or potatoes, then microorganisms transform it into lactic acid, a monomer. Finally, the lactic acid is chemically treated to cause the molecules of lactic acid to link up into long chains or polymers, which bond together to form a plastic called polylactide (PLA).

PLA can be used for products such as plant pots and disposable nappies. It has been commercially available in some countries since 1990, and certain blends have proved successful in medical implants, sutures and drug delivery systems because they are able to dissolve away over time. However, because PLA is much more expensive than normal plastics, it has not become as popular as one would have hoped.

Questions

  1. In your own words, explain what is meant by a 'biodegradable plastic'.
  2. Using your knowledge of chemical bonding, explain why some polymers are biodegradable and others are not.
  3. Explain why lactic acid is a more useful monomer than starch, when making a biodegradable plastic.
  4. If you were a consumer (shopper), would you choose to buy a biodegradable plastic rather than another? Explain your answer.
  5. What do you think could be done to make biodegradable plastics more popular with consumers?

Plastics and the environment

Although plastics have had a huge impact globally, there is also an environmental price that has to be paid for their use. The following are just some of the ways in which plastics can cause damage to the environment.

  1. Waste disposal Plastics are not easily broken down by micro-organisms and therefore most are not easily biodegradeable. This leads to waste dispoal problems.
  2. Air pollution When plastics burn, they can produce toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen chloride (particularly from PVC and other plastics that contain chlorine and nitrogen).
  3. Recycling It is very difficult to recycle plastics because each type of plastic has different properties and so different recycling methods may be needed for each plastic. However, attempts are being made to find ways of recycling plastics more effectively. Some plastics can be remelted and re-used, while others can be ground up and used as a filler. However, one of the problems with recycling plastics is that they have to be sorted according to plastic type . This process is difficult to do with machinery, and therefore needs a lot of labour. Alternatively, plastics should be re-used. In many countries, including South Africa, shoppers must now pay for plastic bags. This encourages people to collect and re-use the bags they already have.

Case study : plastic pollution in south africa

Read the following extract, taken from 'Planet Ark' (September 2003), and then answer the questions that follow.

South Africa launches a programme this week to exterminate its "national flower" - the millions of used plastic bags that litter the landscape.

Beginning on Friday, plastic shopping bags used in the country must be both thicker and more recyclable, a move officials hope will stop people from simply tossing them away. "Government has targeted plastic bags because they are the most visible kind of waste," said Phindile Makwakwa, spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. "But this is mostly about changing people's mindsets about the environment."

South Africa is awash in plastic pollution. Plastic bags are such a common eyesore that they are dubbed "roadside daisies" and referred to as the national flower. Bill Naude of the Plastics Federation of South Africa said the country used about eight billion plastic bags annually, a figure which could drop by 50 percent if the new law works.

It is difficult sometimes to imagine exactly how much waste is produced in our country every year. Where does all of this go to? You are going to do some simple calculations to try to estimate the volume of plastic packets that is produced in South Africa every year.

  1. Take a plastic shopping packet and squash it into a tight ball.
    1. Measure the approximate length, breadth and depth of your squashed plastic bag.
    2. Calculate the approximate volume that is occupied by the packet.
    3. Now calculate the approximate volume of your classroom by measuring its length, breadth and height.
    4. Calculate the number of squashed plastic packets that would fit into a classroom of this volume.
    5. If South Africa produces an average of 8 billion plastic bags each year, how many clasrooms would be filled if all of these bags were thrown away and not re-used?
  2. What has South Africa done to try to reduce the number of plastic bags that are produced?
  3. Do you think this has helped the situation?
  4. What can you do to reduce the amount of plastic that you throw away?

Questions & Answers

how is ester formed
Aubrey Reply
how is n ester formed
Aubrey
Alcohol reacts with a carboxylic acid
Texas
an athlete with a mass of 70kg runs at a velocity of 45km . determine the athlete's momentum
Lesedi Reply
Is that a velocity or something else
msawenkosi
45km/h i guess
Texas
Change to m/s
Texas
45km/h = 12.5 m/s p=mv =70×12.5 =875 kg.m/s
Thato
what are the measures of the rates of reaction
Lesego Reply
Volume Concentration Temperature Pressure Surface Area
Thato
the principle of superposition of waves
Sfundo Reply
what is work
Kool Reply
is this a group chat
Nobuhle Reply
Hey can y'all define newton's 2nd law
mthebzification
If a resultant force act on an object...the object will accelerate in the direction of a resultant force,the acceleration of the object is directly proportional to the net force and inversely proportional to the mass of the object
mosa
how do you calculate tension force
Bulumko
use the formula Fnet=ma if there is tension connecting two objects
Sboniso
to calculate Tension, usually calculate acceleration first Draw separate free body diagrams for each body. Apply Fnet = ma to calculate Tension
Kevin
Hi people
Paul
how does temperature affect the equilibrium position
Blessing Reply
an increased temperature increases the average kinetic energy thus in turn increases the number of effective collisions........
Lwando
so...which reaction is favored between endothermic and exothermic .when temperature is increased..?
Blessing
exothermic reaction because energy is realised to the surroundings as heat and light energy ....graphical so much energy is realised as reactants to form product and because temperature is high rate of reaction is fast which means there is a successful collision
Code
INTEMENDO - INCREASE IN TEMPERATURE FAVOURS ENDOTHERMIC DETEMEXO - DECREASE IN TEMPERATURE FAVOURS EXOTHERMIC
Thato
an object will continue in a state of rest unless it is acted upon an unbalanced force
Junior Reply
Newton's Law 1
Code
First Newton's Law
Azola
Newton's first law
Surprise
newton first law
Thinavhuyo
Newton's first law
Blessing
when pressure is increased what happen to volume
Siphelo Reply
decreases
Code
care to explain?
Mpati
if pressure is applied to a pistol , the volume will decrease and particles will collide more frequently with the wall of a container .Each time they collide with the wall they exert a force on them .More collision means more force and the pressure will increase , that Boyle's Law
Code
Because the volume has decreased , the particle will collide more frequently with the wall of a container and each time they collide with the wall of a container they exert a force on them.More collision means more force so the pressure will increase , that Boyle's Law
Code
what is the difference between momentum and a change in momentum?
Chavonne Reply
How to name a branched molecule from right or left?
Vadin Reply
What's Free Fall
Senzo Reply
Free Fall means there is no acting force on that object.
Dingaletu
only gravitational force
Dingaletu
no external force acting on an object
Sphiwe
by only force of gravite
Sello
but gravitational force
Sphiwe
true
Lucky
a motion in which the only force acting is gravitational force
Blessing
and an object experiencing free fall is referred as a projectile
Blessing
Do polymers form restrictedly only if compound is saturated, only?
milani Reply
what is a free fall?
Beyanca Reply
is when The Only Force acting On an Object is Gravitational Force
Madman
Thats right
Beyanca
then Why ask when you Know the answer?
Madman
She's just helping those who forgot it...bro
Thato
guys I need help on Getting ready for a last minute test
Kenelioe Reply
what help you need
Neil
we'll I'm in grade 12 so we doing this topic about upac thing
Kenelioe
on What?
Madman
the organic molecule section
Kenelioe
IUPAC NAMING WHICH FUNCTIONAL GROUP YOU CANNOT NAME?SO I COULD HELP YOU
Madman
ester
Sboniso
you should also look at structural isomers. Its crucial that they might add that one. also try and write down the structural formula of all the given compounds on the table
milani

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Source:  OpenStax, Siyavula textbooks: grade 12 physical science. OpenStax CNX. Aug 03, 2011 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11244/1.2
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