Cornell researchers came up with a way to reduce ocean pollution

When it comes to pollution on our planet, there’s not a bigger problem than the unbelievable amounts of plastic plaguing our oceans

Now, researchers from Cornell University have developed an exciting new way to reduce ocean plastic pollution. They’ve created an entirely new form of plastic for fishing and marine use that degrades much faster than normal plastic. This new polymer breaks down in response to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight).

Since roughly the 1950s, humans have used plastic for just about everything.

Plastic is used so much because it’s cheap to produce and does a great job of keeping food products fresh, but it has an incredibly long lifespan and is quite expensive to properly recycle. So, most plastic ends up in the trash almost immediately and eventually makes its way to the ocean where it pollutes the water, suffocates marine life, and makes once vibrant ocean ecosystems uninhabitable. Plastic debris kills more than 100,000 marine mammals each year.

Beyond just plastic used for food or packaging, another major cause of plastic pollution in the oceans is commercial fishing. Extra durable forms of plastic are used the world over in fishing nets, lines, traps, and pots. In fact, according to the study’s authors, commercial fishing is responsible for about half of the plastic currently polluting the planet’s oceans. 

“We have created a new plastic that has the mechanical properties required by commercial fishing gear. If it eventually gets lost in the aquatic environment, this material can degrade on a realistic time scale,” says lead researcher Bryce Lipinski, a doctoral candidate in the laboratory of Geoff Coates, professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Cornell University, in a press release. “This material could reduce persistent plastic accumulation in the environment.”

Plastic used for fishing purposes has to be quite strong and firm. The problem with that is these plastics are also largely non-degradable. 

“While research of degradable plastics has received much attention in recent years,” Lipinski adds, “obtaining a material with the mechanical strength comparable to commercial plastic remains a difficult challenge.”

Developing this new plastic, called isotactic polypropylene oxide (iPPO), was by no means a short process. The research team has been working on this for 15 years. The original form of iPPO was discovered way back in 1949, but this new version is much stronger than its predecessor.

The beauty of iPPO is that it’s just as sturdy as other fishing plastics while in use, but breaks down much easier and in a quicker fashion once exposed to ultraviolet light. Lipinski and his team were able to closely track the degradation process in a lab setting but say “visually, it may not appear to have changed much during the process.”

The more UV light the plastic is exposed to, the faster it degrades, but in Lipinski’s lab after just 30 days of UV light exposure a piece of the plastic used to create a chain had broken down to a quarter of its original length.

Ideally, the end goal is to produce a form of iPPO that completely breaks down and disappears in a timely manner. The research team says they’re committed to refining their results until they reach that plateau. 

The problem of plastic pollution is a complicated one, but it’s innovations like this that will help turn the tide in the battle to preserve the planet’s oceans. If iPPO can be mass-produced and truly adopted by fishing operations all over the world it could be a massive benefit to fish, marine mammals, and aquatic ecosystems in general.

The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.