Plastic waste is currently generated at a rate approaching 400 Mt year–1. The amount of plastics accumulating in the environment is growing rapidly, yet our understanding of its persistence is very limited.

This Perspective summarizes the existing literature on environmental degradation rates and pathways for the major types of thermoplastic polymers. A metric to harmonize disparate types of measurements, the specific surface degradation rate (SSDR), is implemented and used to extrapolate half-lives. SSDR values cover a very wide range, with some of the variability arising due to degradation studies conducted in different natural environments. SSDRs for high density polyethylene (HDPE) in the marine environment range from practically 0 to approximately 11 μm year–1. This approach yields a number of interesting insights. Using a mean SSDR for HDPE in the marine environment, linear extrapolation leads to estimated half-lives ranging from 58 years (bottles) to 1200 years (pipes). For example, SSDRs for HDPE and polylactic acid (PLA) are surprisingly similar in the marine environment, although PLA degrades approximately 20 times faster than HDPE on land. Our study highlights the need for better experimental studies under well-defined reaction conditions, standardized reporting of rates, and methods to simulate polymer degradation using.

Read the study in ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering