Plastic is made from fossil fuels and has been linked to dozens of chemicals. When you throw away plastic, you are indirectly helping to fund the production of more dangerous products. The problem isn’t restricted to its production: once plastic is in the trash, it stays there. It doesn’t bounce back when exposed to light or air—it retains its properties and can be damaged by organisms, bacteria, and even sunlight. 50 years ago Chemist James Guillet came up with a solution for this issue: plastic that self-destructs. The plastic found in the form of wrapping paper was able to disintegrate in about a month.
The science behind it was explained by Dr. Guillet 20 years ago: “If you introduce certain molecular groups at areas along the chains hat are especially sensitive to light, the chains break and the strength of the plastic deteriorates to the point where it will fall apart during natural erosion.”
The technique was created in 1971, and the team of scientists worked on it for a number of years. At that time the major question was “Will the public pay for the basic research to reverse chemists’ years of effort to make plastics harder?”.
How did this invention pass the time of time? Sadly the self-destructing plastic did not prove to be as useful as intended. There were problems with the disintegration process: most plastics have not degraded as intended. That happened because plastic ends up in landfills, and it does not get enough light to make the polymer degrade completely. Moreover, after plastics do decompose, they become smaller and smaller particles that can in fact harm the environment. Scientists are looking into ways to make plastics that can be broken down completely with the help of enzymes, and these materials could help reduce the amount of plastic waste in landfills.