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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

Is the normal force always 0
Mpilo Reply
define the term rate of reaction in word
David Reply
I think it a chemical process in which substance act mutually on each other.
Sphesihle
how many bones are in the human body?
Asali
what is wave lengh
mama Reply
is the de broglie wavelength of the particle
Hope
calcium and magnesium, which one can displace aluminum from its compound?
Markia Reply
how is aluminum ion formed?
Dickens
molecules with the same molecular formula but different chain
Malaza Reply
what will be the answer
.angel
chain isomer
Anele
what does the newton's law says?
there are 3 newtons laws which are newton's law of universal gravitation, law of cooling, law of motion
Imagine
Did the feather or leaf hit the ground first?
Shaloom Reply
leaf
Pradip
2 to 30 minut long distance race 20 km what's the avarage speed for the race
Jamilla Reply
what is meaning of covalent bonds
Lungani Reply
bonds that exists between non metal atoms. each atom contribute electron(s) which will form a bond joining the two atoms. electrons in the bond now belongs to both atoms
Matome
how do we name haloalkanes
Thobeka Reply
how do we name haloalkanes
lesedi
what are examples of haloalkanes
Mpho
haloalkanes are compounds that consist of the halogen group chlorine bromine flourine and so on like 2-bromobutan
Samkele
give an example of calculating work
Nwabisa Reply
what is chain Isomer?
Christian Reply
chain isomer ar compounds with the same molecular formular but different chain length
Samkele
Where does the functional group of ketone in carbons belong
Keletso Reply
alkane
Isamkele
how can I find the structural formulae and IUPAC names of hexane?
Matshidiso Reply
@Matshidiso identify your compound which is an alkane..the general formula for alkane is CnH2n+2... hex-6 substitute n with 6 implying that you'll have 6 carbons and 14 Hydrogens then you can draw your structural formula *NB* every carbon has to have 4 bonds
Kgabo
what are disadvantages of primary cells and advantage of secondary cells?
Thabang 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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