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Reducing environmental plastic pollution by designing polymer materials for managed end-of-life


Plastics are a ubiquitous class of synthetic polymer materials used in virtually all commercial and industrial sectors. The majority of global plastics consists of polymers with carbon–carbon backbones, whose environmental persistence and low cost have resulted in a massive reservoir of plastic waste that resides in landfills and the environment. Although plastic debris contaminating the ocean has been documented for decades, details about plastic debris composition, distribution, impact and ultimate fate in the environment remain elusive. In this Review, we present an overview of environmental plastic contamination and discuss the origin (feedstock) and degradation behaviour of plastics to help inform material design principles addressing end-of-life management. We argue that designing materials to be ‘marine biodegradable’ or universally biodegradable is not, in itself, a solution to plastic pollution. Instead, material and product design principles must include a feasible plan for recovery and treatment based upon existing (or, possibly, simultaneously developed) systems.

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Fig. 1: Global plastic production.
Fig. 2: Global plastics production and cumulative plastic waste generation since 1950.
Fig. 3: Polymer characterization according to carbon feedstock and biodegradability.
Fig. 4: Existing and proposed pathways for treatment of plastics in municipal solid waste.
Fig. 5: Requirements for polymer design.


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Funding for K.L.L. was provided by the March Marine Initiative, a project of March Limited in Hamilton, Bermuda. The authors thank R. Geyer for providing updated global plastic production data (2016–2018) from the model published in Geyer et al. (2017)1. The authors thank Apoorva Kulkarni, PhD student in chemical engineering at Michigan State University, for compiling data on cellulose biodegradation. They also thank T. R. Siegler and N. Starr for helpful discussion, and E. Wolman and the reviewers for comments that improved the manuscript.

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Both authors contributed to the design and content of the manuscript. K.L.L. wrote the manuscript and both authors edited and revised the manuscript prior to submission.

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Correspondence to Kara Lavender Law.

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Law, K.L., Narayan, R. Reducing environmental plastic pollution by designing polymer materials for managed end-of-life. Nat Rev Mater (2021).

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