05. Jan 2024

Making plastics biodegradable by UV-light

Making plastics biodegradable by UV-light

Although efforts to improve the collection and recycling of plastics to achieve a circular economy are increasing significantly, some (synthetic) materials will eventually always end up in the environment due to e.g. littering, weathering, and abrasion.

In the project ULTRADREAM (funded by TKI-AF), which started in the summer of 2023, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research (WFBR – Wageningen, the Netherlands) is supporting the development of the circular economy by using agricultural side streams and residues for developing novel modified biobased, renewable polymers, with inherent biodegradation capabilities at their end-of-life.

The WFBR approach is to test the possibilities of incorporating specific bio-derived monomers into polymers to increase their biodegradation by exposure to UV-light. If successful, this approach will prevent accumulation and persistence of these polymers at the end of their useful life. “Recent research findings at our organization have shown that some specific carbohydrate derived building blocks are sensitive to degradation under UV irradiation. Incorporating such building blocks into the original polymer structure could therefore increase the biodegradation capability of the obtained polymers upon exposure to sunlight/ UV-irradiation. These polymers could be used in packaging, agricultural mulching films, or decorative and paper coatings”, project leader Ghazal Tavakoli explains.

The scientist with a background in organic chemistry is excited about the possible implications of the research: “In ULTRADREAM we establish technologies and protocols which ensure that these materials can be successfully degraded at their end-of-life. Our challenge is both to further develop our knowledge about the underlying mechanism of biodegradation as well as to improve the procedures and processes to obtain the optimal combination of UV-degradability while preserving desired properties. This could be a great step towards creating the sustainable circular economy”.

Circular feedstock
Both the photo labile monomers used to incorporate into the polymers and the original polymers themselves, come from agricultural side streams. Tavakoli: “We convert low value non-food residues to high added value functional products. This way we develop new classes of bio-renewable, biodegradable materials with an improved circular potential”.

Practical implications
The project, executed together with partners Archer Daniels Midland, AkzoNobel and Oerlemans Plastics, works on plastics that have various uses. Most notable are coatings and mulch films used in agriculture. Working together with partners who develop these products has many benefits. Tavakoli: “What we develop in this project fits very well with their goals towards the further development of circular products and enables them to broaden the application range of their renewable platforms. At the same time, collaborating with industrial partners in this project helps us to gain more knowledge in the field and expand our expertise”.
The focus on the practical implications of the research is also due to the make-up of the project team. Tavakoli: “Our team is a combination of chemists and material and process engineers. That way, we can instantly confirm whether what we’ve developed in the lab also works in practice. Making the outcomes a solution everyone can benefit from immediately”. AT


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