Degradable polyethylene: fantasy or reality

Environ Sci Technol. 2011 May 15;45(10):4217-27. doi: 10.1021/es104042f. Epub 2011 Apr 15.


Plastic waste disposal is one of the serious environmental issues being tackled by our society today. Polyethylene, particularly in packaging films, has received criticism as it tends to accumulate over a period of time, leaving behind an undesirable visual footprint. Degradable polyethylene, which would enter the eco-cycle harmlessly through biodegradation would be a desirable solution to this problem. However, the "degradable polyethylene" which is presently being promoted as an environmentally friendly alternative to the nondegradable counterpart, does not seem to meet this criterion. This article reviews the state of the art on the aspect of degradability of polyethylene containing pro-oxidants, and more importantly the effect these polymers could have on the environment in the long run. On exposure to heat, light, and oxygen, these polymers disintegrate into small fragments, thereby reducing or increasing the visual presence. However, these fragments can remain in the environment for prolonged time periods. This article also outlines important questions, particularly in terms of time scale of complete degradation, environmental fate of the polymer residues, and possible accumulation of toxins, the answers to which need to be established prior to accepting these polymers as environmentally benign alternatives to their nondegradable equivalents. It appears from the existing literature that our search for biodegradable polyethylene has not yet been realized.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis
  • Environmental Pollutants / chemistry*
  • Environmental Pollutants / metabolism
  • Green Chemistry Technology
  • Polyethylene / analysis
  • Polyethylene / chemistry*
  • Polyethylene / metabolism
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / analysis
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / chemistry
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism


  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Polyethylene