Change in the chemical, mechanical and physical properties of plastics due to UVA degradation in different water matrices: A study on the recyclability of littered plastics
To move towards a circular society, the recyclability potential of littered plastics should be explored to provide potential value for a product that is typically destined for landfill or incineration. This study aims to understand the changes in physical, mechanical, and chemical properties of four types of plastics (polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), polycarbonate (PC) and polylactic acid (PLA) after simulated environmental degradation. Plastic samples were subjected to different water matrices (in an attempt to simulate terrestrial, ocean, and river environments) to understand the role the environment plays on plastic degradation. Significant physical, mechanical, and chemical changes were observed for the PET, PP and PLA samples. Flakes and cracks were noted during the scanning electron microscopy (SEM) analysis of PET, PP and PLA illustrating the surface degradation that had occurred. Colour scanning of the samples provided complementary information about their suitability for upcycling or downcycling. Both PET and PP had visual colour changes, making them unsuitable for upcycling purposes. PLA had a significant decrease in its tensile strength in all environmental conditions, alongside significant chemical and surface change as revealed by Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) and SEM analysis, respectively. PC had little to no changes in its chemical, mechanical, and physical properties due to high resistance to solar (UVA) degradation in presence of salt and natural organic matter in the form of humic acid. Therefore, out of the four types of plastics tested, PC was the only plastic determined to have good upcycling potential if collected from the environment. However, PET and PP could still be recycled into lower value products (i.e., construction materials).
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