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Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics: What are they?

Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics: What are they? February 25, 2019Leave a comment

Polyethylene shopping bags are a big convenience, but they also present a big problem. While they can be recycled, many just get carelessly  discarded and end up in the environment not only as an eyesore but as a danger to wildlife. Estimates are that only about 3% of plastics that can be recycled are. Polyethylene does not degrade quickly in the environment, and the bags can end up as pollutants for decades. Some clever chemistry can, however, help the situation.

Oxo-Biodegradable bags

If certain salts of iron, manganese, nickel or cobalt are incorporated into the polyethylene, polypropylene or polystyrene molecular chains during manufacture, they will catalyze the breakdown of the polymers. But the breakdown requires the presence of oxygen because the mechanism of the degradation involves “oxidation,” which means forming bonds between some of the carbon atoms in the polymer and oxygen atoms supplied by oxygen in the atmosphere. Exposure to ultraviolet light speeds up the reaction. Technically what we are talking about here is “oxo-degradable” plastics. These are plastics made to degrade in the presence of oxygen and sunlight, thanks to the addition of tiny amounts of metals like cobalt, iron or manganese.

The decomposition process

Once the chain has been “oxidized,” the bonds between the oxygen-bearing carbons and their neighbors are significantly weakened and begin to break apart. The resulting short chains are then biodegraded by microbes basically to carbon dioxide and water. Depending on the extent of UV and oxygen exposure, and ambient temperature, oxo-biodegradable plastics visually disappear in as little as two months, although the process can take up to a year and a half. These bags will not degrade in a landfill and therefore will not generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas. They cannot be composted, but they can be recycled just like other polyethylene bags. The big advantage is a reduction in all those bags that end up fluttering from trees or floating in the ocean. Of course, until the plastic breaks down, it can still pose a risk to wildlife, but there is no doubt that the oxo-biodegradable plastic is preferable to the conventional variety in terms of impact on the environment.

The Confusion: Bio-degradable  Vs Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics

When you are in the store, remember that there is a difference between biodegradable and oxo-biodegradable. Both affect the environment in different ways. Biodegradable products are environmentally safe and typically reduce pollution whereas oxo-biodegradable products may cause further pollution. There are a lot of products, which are biodegradable that can be bought at the store. These include trash bags, straws, and even shoes & watches! People mistake the two terms for being the same thing. “Oxo-Biodegradable plastic uses metal salts to start degradation and to speed up the process, which results in tiny fragments of plastic that no longer “visually” pollute the environment.” Further degradation depends on living organisms and bacteria. Products using this plastic typically don’t break down entirely in regular landfills.  This may be due to a lack of oxygen. Also, as another negative, some oxo-biodegradable plastics use Cobalt and carries the risk of further environmental pollution.

Biodegradable plastic additive provided by Oxygreen plastics is the most cost affordable solution to enhance the biodegradation of your plastic product. Where does the environment stand on your priority list?

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