It is found that the bio based polyurethane foam can be decomposed in the seawater environment

  • 2022-10-06
At present, plastic pollution is everywhere. Billions of tons of waste plastics are filled in landfills or floating in the sea. These plastic wastes gradually decompose into smaller and smaller pieces, but never disappear. This is one of the most serious environmental problems in our time. Unless we change the use habits of plastics or develop new biodegradable materials, this problem will not disappear.

This is exactly what scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have been doing for most of the past decade. Interdisciplinary teams including biologist Stephen Mayfield and chemist Michael Burkart and Robert "Skip" Pomeroy have developed polyurethane foam made from algae and other biological sources, so this foam can be biodegraded by natural decomposers (bacteria and fungi) in the environment. Experts have used the foam to make shoes, including flip flops, the world's most popular footwear, and have tested their decomposition in a terrestrial environment. Once buried in the soil, the shoes can start to degrade in just 16 weeks.

Now, in a new study, the team tested whether these polyurethane foams made of bio based monomers would decompose when immersed in seawater. The researchers collaborated with Samantha Clements, the co author of the study, who is a marine biologist and scientific diver at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They fixed foam and shoe samples on Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Wharf, and monitored their physical and chemical changes using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and scanning electron microscopy.

The geographical location of the dock provides a unique opportunity to test materials in the natural nearshore ecosystem, which is the environment where waste plastics often end up. In 2010, researchers estimated that 8 billion kilograms of plastic would enter the ocean within one year, which is expected to increase significantly by 2025. When plastic waste enters the ocean, it will destroy the marine ecosystem, wash it ashore as garbage, or move it to the center, forming a garbage vortex, such as the Pacific Garbage Dump, which covers an area of more than 1.6 million square kilometers.

The research results currently published in the journal Environmental Science show that those experimental polyurethane materials attached to the dock are quickly attached by various marine organisms and begin to degrade in just four weeks. The decomposers, mainly bacteria and fungi, break down the materials into their original monomers (chemical molecules) and then use them as a source of nutrition. When the researchers identified microorganisms that could consume polyurethane samples, they found that these microorganisms were common species in the entire natural marine environment.

Stephen Mayfield, professor of the College of Biological Sciences and director of the California Algae Biotechnology Center, said: "No single discipline can solve these common environmental problems, but we have developed a comprehensive solution that is applicable to land. Now we know that the ocean can also be biodegradable. I was surprised to see how many organisms in the ocean settle on these bubbles. It has become something similar to a microbial reef."

Researchers will continue to seek to develop renewable and sustainable monomers made from biological sources to produce polymers for different applications in the future. Their research will also continue to investigate the process of biodegradation and the resulting chemicals. Experts said that people began to understand the seriousness of the problem of plastic pollution and began to look for alternatives that did less damage to nature.

Stephen Mayfield said: "Plastics in the ocean will be decomposed into micro plastics if improperly handled, which has become a huge environmental problem. We have proved that it is absolutely possible to produce high-performance plastic products that can be degraded in the ocean. Plastic should not have entered the ocean, but if it entered the ocean, this material would become food for microorganisms, rather than plastic garbage and micro plastics that endanger aquatic organisms." (Universal Polyurethane)

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