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Environmental Degradation of Polyethylene

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Part of the Advances in Polymer Science book series (POLYMER,volume 169)

Abstract

The environmental degradation of polyethylene proceeds by synergistic action of photo- and thermo-oxidative degradation and biological activity. Since biodegradation of commercial high molecular weight polyethylene proceeds slowly, abiotic oxidation is the initial and rate-determining step. Enhanced environmentally degradable polyethylene is prepared by blending with biodegradable additives or photo-initiators or by copolymerisation. One of the key questions for successful development and use of environmentally degradable polymers is to understand the interaction between degradation products and nature. Polymer fragments and degradation products should be environmentally assimilable and should not accumulate or negatively affect the environment. Determination of abiotic and biotic oxidation products is an important step towards establishing the environmental degradation mechanism and environmental impact of the material. More than 200 different degradation products including alkanes, alkenes, ketones, aldehydes, alcohols, carboxylic acid, keto-acids, dicarboxylic acids, lactones and esters have been identified in thermo- and photo-oxidised polyethylene. In biotic environment these abiotic oxidation products and oxidised low molecular weight polymer can be assimilated by microorganisms. In future we will probably see a development of new polyethylenes with tailor-made structures specially designed for environmental degradation through different pathways. Paralleled with the development of these new materials we need to obtain better understanding of the environmental impact of degradable polymers and the interactions between nature and degradation products in a dynamic system.

Keywords

  • Polyethylene
  • Environmental degradation
  • Environmental impact
  • Degradation products

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Abbreviations

BHT :

Butylated hydroxy toluene

E/CO :

Ethylene-carbon monoxide

FTIR :

Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy

HDPE :

High density polyethylene

LDPE :

Low density polyethylene

LDPE-MB :

Polyethylene modified with masterbatch

LDPE-PO :

Polyethylene modified with pro-oxidants

LDPE-starch :

Polyethylene modified with starch

Mn :

Number average molecular weight

Mw :

Weight average molecular weight

NMR :

Nuclear magnetic resonance

PP :

Polypropylene

PS :

Polystyrene

PVA :

Polyvinyl alcohol

PVC :

Polyvinyl chloride

SBS :

Styrene-butadiene copolymer

SEM :

Scanning electron microscopy

UF :

Urea formaldehyde resin

UV :

Ultraviolet light

XRF :

X-ray fluorescence

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Acknowledgements

Prof. G. Scott is thanked for his comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ann-Christine Albertsson .

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Hakkarainen, M., Albertsson, AC. Environmental Degradation of Polyethylene. In: Albertsson, AC. (eds) Long Term Properties of Polyolefins. Advances in Polymer Science, vol 169. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/b13523

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/b13523

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