Degradation of plastic carrier bags in the marine environment.

Research paper by Tim T O'Brine, Richard C RC Thompson

Indexed on: 22 Oct '10Published on: 22 Oct '10Published in: Marine Pollution Bulletin


There is considerable concern about the hazards that plastic debris presents to wildlife. Use of polymers that degrade more quickly than conventional plastics presents a possible solution to this problem. Here we investigate breakdown of two oxo-biodegradable plastics, compostable plastic and standard polyethylene in the marine environment. Tensile strength of all materials decreased during exposure, but at different rates. Compostable plastic disappeared from our test rig between 16 and 24 weeks whereas approximately 98% of the other plastics remained after 40 weeks. Some plastics require UV light to degrade. Transmittance of UV through oxo-biodegradable and standard polyethylene decreased as a consequence of fouling such that these materials received ∼ 90% less UV light after 40 weeks. Our data indicate that compostable plastics may degrade relatively quickly compared to oxo-biodegradable and conventional plastics. While degradable polymers offer waste management solutions, there are limitations to their effectiveness in reducing hazards associated with plastic debris.