Polymers are materials composed of long strings of interconnected molecules. When polymers are synthesized, monomers are treated using heat or the application of another force in order to bind them together. Although most of the polymers used daily are synthetic, the most common polymers are naturally occurring.
Synthetic polymers have developed a reputation for being incredibly damaging to the environment. Polyethylene and its kin take many hundreds of years to biodegrade and are produced using finite and environmentally damaging fossil fuels. In recent years, there has been a drive to create polymers that do less damage to the environment to offset the massive damage done by using polymers up until now. Here are some of the factors that make these new materials ‘eco friendly’.
The vast majority of polymers used to create adhesives are not water-soluble. This means that they will not break up easily and will poison water supplies over time if they join the water system – which many eventually will, and water pollution is one of the top issues with environmental groups. There is some good news, though. The development of a practical water soluble polymer has been advancing in recent years, with the creation of Aquazol being a major breakthrough. Water-soluble polymers will drastically reduce the negative impact of polymer use overall, making them safer and less toxic if they do end up in the water.
Most eco-friendly polymers are composed of monomers extracted from plants. Sugar cane and bamboo are commonly used to create these naturally derived materials. Plants extract energy using a combination of photosynthesis and carbon absorption. The more plants are grown for use as polymer bases, the more carbon they will theoretically absorb from the air. This is known as carbon elimination and is seen as a way of offsetting the carbon pollution caused by many polymer manufacturing processes. Some polymers are created from monomers derived from plant fibers that have been fermented.
Energy Efficient To Make
Polymers can be extremely energy hungry during the manufacturing phase. The manufacture of polymers often involves the use of dangerous chemicals or the exposure of materials to extreme heat. Many processes require the burning of fossil fuels. Recent research has focused on the creation of polymers that are more energy efficient to produce. The benefits of energy-efficient production will be felt financially and ethically.
Non-Fossil Fuel Based
Many traditional synthetic polymers, such as polystyrene and polyethylene, are made of petrochemicals – chemicals that are derived from crude oil. Fossil fuel extraction and use is immensely damaging to the environment and represent one of how humanity is doing the most overall damage to the complex global ecosystem. In recent years, synthetic plastic polymers have come under a great deal of scrutiny – despite the best efforts of oil industry giants to convince populations otherwise.
New polymer research is typically focused on the development of polymers that do not use oil-based chemicals at all. Many polymer research companies are focusing on the creation of materials using abundant plants such as bamboo.