50 years ago, scientists developed self-destructing plastic

Excerpt from the August 7, 1971 issue of Science News

a gloved hand holds plastic pack rings (to hold six canned beverages together), behind the rings is a beach

In the 1970s, amid public calls for eco-friendly products, scientists developed plastic that could quickly break down when exposed to light. Fifty years later, plastic pollution is still a problem.

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cover of the August 7, 1971 issue of Science News

This plastic will self-destructScience News, August 7, 1971

Public indignation over litter and garbage has caused industry to ask chemists whether self-destroying, or quickly degradable, plastics might be devised to replace indestructible … glass, aluminum and plastics, which comprise the largest segment of consumer waste.… [Chemist James] Guillet and his team … devised a self-destroying plastic that is about ready for marketing — a wrapping paper that disintegrates in about a month.


Guillet’s work on polymers that degrade via light helped pave the way for their wider commercial use. But these materials may have created more problems than they solved. Most plastics wind up in landfills where the materials don’t get enough light to degrade as intended (SN: 1/30/21, p. 20). Plastics that do break down turn into microscopic pieces that can wind up in ecosystems and harm animals. Scientists are trying to make more eco-friendly plastics, such as compostable plastics that can be totally broken down with enzymes (SN: 6/5/21, p. 5).

Aina Abell is the editorial assistant at Science News. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Southern California.

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