Colwell, J., Pratt, S., Lant, P., & Laycock, B. (2023). Hazardous state lifetimes of biodegradable plastics in natural environments. Science of The Total Environment, 165025. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.165025
- Plastic bio/degradation can be represented as a transition between different states.
- Each state has its own associated hazards.
- The lifetimes within each state vary widely for different polymers.
- This paper presents a conceptual framework for modelling this bio/degradation process.
Plastic pollution is a critical problem that has the potential for long-lasting impact. While all plastics eventually break down to at least some degree, they can remain in different transition states, such as microplastics and nanoplastics, for extended periods of time before reaching complete mineralisation to non-hazardous end products. Each of the transition states represents different types of hazards, so it is critical to understand the factors driving the lifetimes of plastics within these states. To do this, we propose a framework for assessing plastic lifetimes in natural environments based on the flow of material through potentially hazardous states: macroplastic and mesoplastic, microplastic, nanoplastic and soluble products. State changes within this framework are underpinned by three key processes: fragmentation, depolymerisation, and bioassimilation, with the pathways for generation of the different plastic states, and the lifetimes within these states, varying widely for individual materials in different environments due to their dependence on polymer material type, form and properties, and environmental factors. The critical factors driving these processes can therefore appear complex, but molecular weight, crystallinity, oxygen and water diffusivity, and inherent polymer chain reactivity (including to enzymes) are key to our understanding. By analysing currently available data that take factors such as these into consideration, we have generated information on the most likely states in which a range of plastics with different environmental degradation behaviour may exist over time in natural environments. Polyethylene (PE), for example, should be expected to fragment and accumulate in the environment as microplastic and nanoplastic. Interestingly, the state-profile for the biodegradable plastic polylactic acid (PLA) is similar, albeit over shorter timeframes. PLA also likely fragments, but then the relatively slow process of abiotic depolymerisation results in accumulation of microplastic and nanoplastic. By contrast, the state-profile for the biodegradable plastic polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) would be expected to be very different. The bulk material is less susceptible to embrittlement and fragmentation as a primary path to biodegradation, since the rapid enzyme catalysed depolymerisation of exposed surfaces proceeds in conjunction with bioassimilation.