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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

Why is alcohol flameable?
Moloto Reply
What is interconversion reaction for? ... under substitution reaction
Moloto
how can u tell whether the compound is an alkane, alkene or alkyne
Imagine Reply
alkane compounds are saturated, consists of single bonds between atoms and alkenes are unsaturated consists of one double bond between two adjacent carbon atoms .alkynes are also unsaturated but they consists of a triple bond between 2 adjacent carbon atoms.
Andile
you can tell simple by looking at the bonds which exist between the carbon-carbon atoms of the compound, so if a compound consists of double bond between its carbon-carbon atoms it is an alkene etc.
Tatyana
can it say it cause I understand it better
Tobeka Reply
Hey, what is momentum?
Inocent Reply
the product of mass n its velocity
Albert
And what's simple harmonic?
Inocent
What is organic compounds
Gaba Reply
are compounds which consists of carbon atoms
Mkhize
Thanks bro
Gaba
How many industrial processes are there?
Sheron Reply
A homologous group is a group with the same amount of electrons in the outermost shell.
Duncan Reply
What are hydrocarbons
Lindiwe Reply
Its a compound of hydrogen and carbon atoms
Luyanda
do hydrocarbons get unsaturated?
Mandi Reply
yes
Thembi
they are saturated
Sinoty
Yes
Gugu
what is monomer
Vuyo Reply
what is polymerism
Tobeka
I think a polymer is a chemical compound with molecules bonded together in long, repeating chains. Because of their structure, polymers have unique properties that can be tailored for different uses.
Kagiso
what about a monomer ?
Louis
which essays are expected in march exams
Qiniso Reply
what do you look at when you want to successfully compare the boiling points of two|three organic molecules
FIN Reply
1-check the homologous group 2-number of carbons or chain length n their intermolecular forces between the bonds
Lesego
why are alkanes none as primary
Babulele Reply
meant to say known as primary alchols
Babulele
because there is only 1 OH attached to carbon and carbon
Sinoty
intermoleculer forces
Bwn Reply
what is meaning of le chateliers princeple
Asanda Reply

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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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