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June 8, 2020

Developing a better plastic

Commercial fishing nets, lines, and ropes contribute to about half of all plastic waste that ends up in our oceans. But, developing a degradable plastic with the mechanical strength comparable to commercial materials remains a difficult challenge.   Chemists at Cornell University, with funding from the National Science Foundation, have created a new polymer aimed to address this challenge. The team’s plastic is called isotactic polypropylene oxide, or iPPO. When the material is first molded, the plastic is easy to deform, but when stretched, the material becomes significantly stronger and increasingly resistant to deformation. While iPPO is stable in the laboratory setting, it breaks down when exposed to ultraviolet radiation-a wavelength of light that is produced by our sun. During lab testing, the team found that the polymer chain lengths degraded to a quarter of their original length after just 30 days of UV exposure.  While scientists want to leave no trace in the oceans, more testing is needed to prove that iPPO can effectively disappear. The team hopes to one day see this polymer used on the commercial scale, helping protect our environment while supporting our need for plastic.

Credit: National Science Foundation

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