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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.


  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

what does the word emitted mean?
Mwinga Reply
to be ejected or released
Ok thanks
what are the hooke laws
Tyriek Reply
what do really asked in exam
Leiyo Reply
hi please help me how to balance redox reactions?
Brian Reply
Which equation do u wanna balance
i tried to write it but my phone just can't write it Cr2 O72-(aq) + H2S (aq) Cr3 (aq) + S(s)
show is the equation
hello. what is the difference between a primary, secondary and tertiary alcohol
Thokozani Reply
primary the C=bonded to 1 Carbon atom.... secondary=bonded to 2 carbon atoms tertiary=bonded to 3 carbon atoms
I hope you're answered
thanks Christina
My pleasure
Thank you Christina. This is very helpful 😀👍👍💯
Anytime Thokozani
How to calculate pH?
thank you guys i didn't know about the primary, secondary and tertiary alcohols
thank you Christina
Hey guys which topic does AC nd DC generator falls
thank you
can somebody help me with functional isomers
Baningi Reply
function isomer has the same molecular formula but different functional group
what's momentum
Luvelo Reply
the product of an objects mass times velocity. it is mainly prevalent in collisions.
in order to produce an interference pattern, the waves used must be what?
Methane contains C and H. This compound is
Juan Reply
ketones's functional group
Moloi Reply
Why does the carboxyl group have acidc properties?
Evi Reply
carboxylic acids
Besides improving appearance what is another reason why medal is electro plated
Elizabeth Reply
it is made of metal
what is different between Dependent variable and independent variables
difference between A.c and D.c
AC has slip rings DC has split rings commutator
to avoid rust and to improve strength and conductivity
the variable whose value doesn't depend on other is known as independent variable ex time
are UV rays dangerous?
Khathutshelo Reply
what's this?
if there is extensive exposure, it can lead to skin cancer
yes depend upon their intensity
i hv a problem with this chapter because i also have problem with Newton's laws of motion
Kearabetswe Reply
I have a problem with calculation in Newton's law of motion
me also VuyokAzi
what's the question
Which area in particular?
just get the hang if free body diagrams,know the directions.
I know how to draw free diagram I have a problem with calculation in second law
what is the wave model of atom ?
Trazy Reply
guys what is momentum
@Luvelo... Momentum is the product of an object's mass and its velocity.
the model based on wave nature of electron
Can you state the Doppler effect in words
Nombuyiselo Reply
State Coulomb's law in words
the magnitude of the electrostatic force exerted point on each other is directly proportional to the product on magnitude of charges and inversely proportional to the square distance between them
the change in frequency of the sound detected by a listener because sound source and listener have different velocity

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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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