Researchers have unveiled a new method to make plastic degradable. These changes will not affect the useful properties of the material – it will remain as durable.

A team of scientists from the University of Constance, Germany, has incorporated polar groups into the molecular chains of polyethylene in order to enhance its properties and at the same time reduce the decomposition time of plastic in the environment. In this case, the favorable properties of polyethylene remain unchanged. The results of this laboratory study appeared in the journal Science.

Polyethylene is a non-polar, hydrophobic material that is water-repellent. To expand its properties, for example, to improve adhesion to metal surfaces, researchers are looking for ways to incorporate a small amount of polar groups into the material during polyethylene synthesis. But this is difficult because the conventional catalysts used in this process were destroyed by polar reagents.

Scientists have now incorporated keto groups into the molecular chains that make up plastic. For this, a catalyst is used, which, due to its position in the periodic table of elements, is compatible with carbon monoxide used as a reagent for producing keto groups.

Researchers have introduced a limited number of keto groups to maintain the typical mechanical properties of polyethylene, such as strength. “Science has long been looking for a method to incorporate such groups into polyethylene chains. Our current achievement opens up new perspectives, ”said one of the study’s authors, Stephan Mecking.

The limited number of keto groups also improved the degradability of the new plastic. In laboratory conditions, when exposed to simulated sunlight, the new plastic exhibits slow chain degradation, which does not occur in conventional polyethylenes.

In laboratory tests, the team has shown that the new material has the same beneficial properties as conventional polyethylene.