Environmental degradation of polyethylene-based plastics
The criteria involved in the degradation of polyethylene-based degradable polymer samples have been investigated, with a view to obtaining a clearer mechanism of photo-biodegradation. The compatibility of degradable polymer samples during materials recycling was also studied. Commercial and laboratory prepared degradable polymer samples were oxidised in different environments and the oxidation products formed were studied using various analytical chromatographic and spectroscopic techniques such as HPLC, FT-IR and NMR. It was found that commercial degradable polymer samples which are based on the ECO systems, degrade predominantly via the Norrish II process, whereas the other degradable systems studied (starch-filled polyethylene systems, transition metal systems, including metal carboxylate based polyethylene systems and the photoantioxidant-activator systems) photodegrade essentially via the Norrish I process. In all cases, the major photoxidation products extracted from the degradable polymer samples were found to be carboxylic acids, although, in the polymer itself a mixture of carbonyl containing products such as esters, lactones, ketones and aldehydes was observed. The study also found that the formation of these hydrophilic carbonyl products causes surface swelling of the polymer, thus making bioerosion possible. It was thus concluded that environmental degradation of LDPE is a two step process, the initiation stage being oxidation of the polymer which gives rise to bioassimilable products, which are consequently bioeroded in the second stage, (the biodegradation step). Recycling of the degradable polymer samples as 10% homogeneous and heterogeneous blends was carried out using a single screw extruder (180°C and 210°C) and an internal mixer (190°C). The study showed that commercial degradable polymer samples may be recycled with a minimal loss in their properties.