A research team at Colorado State University has developed a new type of biodegradable polymer.
The polymer is made up of the monomer Gamma-butyrolactone (GBL). A monomer is a molecule that can be bonded to identical molecules to form a polymer. When heated, this material transforms back into its original molecular state. This makes the environmentally friendly plastic fully recyclable, reusable and biodegradable. It is also petroleum-free, separating it from other plastics.
GBL is already found in common consumer items like cleaning solutions and super glue. Past research has indicated that the monomer’s molecular structure did not make it suitable for plastic, but the team kept researching.
The conversion of monomer GBL into a polymer was attempted, resulting in the discovery of this new material. Poly(GBL) is what came of the attempt from conversion. If heated between 420 and 570 degrees Fahrenheit for an hour, the polymer reverts to the monomer, which is what can be reused to make other products.
Plastic is the most common manmade polymer. Synthetic polymers include polystyrene and polyethylene. Plastic packaging marked as recyclable can only be reused to a certain extent. Unlike a product made from poly(GBL), it is not possible to transform used plastic materials to their original state to create new things.
This inability to be able to completely recycle such polymers contributes to the waste in landfills and oceans. Now, with poly(GBL), an environmentally friendly plastic is possible.
Approximately 200 pounds of plastic made from synthetic polymers like the aforementioned are consumed per person, worldwide, every year. Over 270 million tons of plastic are created annually, with roughly 18 million tons of that ending up in oceans. Being able to produce biorenewable and biodegradable environmentally friendly plastic would be a huge step in decreasing the amount of plastics and polymers wasted.