Despite its many material benefits, plastic has a waste problem. Environmentalists bemoan plastic’s persistence beyond its first use—particularly when considering the volume of enduring plastic garbage that now fills the world’s oceans. Evidence suggests that plastics rarely—if ever—decay, and litter on streets and beaches is a constant reminder of the material's durability.
The reality is that plastics do decay, but not in an environmentally friendly manner. The material undergoes photooxidation in sunlight as well as general degradation over time. Tiny polymer particles are dispersed as a result, further polluting the environment with fragments that can absorb harmful chemicals and be ingested by wildlife.
Researchers at Italy’s University of Bologna and Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm are studying the problem of plastic waste and cultivating special organisms that can safely biodegrade plastic. The researchers have made preliminary progress in finding microbes—at least 15 bacterial cultures and 10 fungi strains—that can degrade petroleum-based polymers such as PVC, polystyrene, polypropylene, and polyethylene.
Despite the successful findings, challenges remain. For example, the process of bio-degradation itself is slow and incomplete. Plastics also have to be collected before they can be subjected to the process—though landfills are obvious, concentrated target sites compared to the plastic waste that is dispersed in oceans and lakes, which would remain a concern. Given the hurdles, one could conclude that we must reduce or eliminate the production of fossil fuel–based polymers altogether—or at least until we can ensure the controlled recapture and recycling of the material.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.