Cornell University researchers develop game-changing plastic polymer suitable for marine use

Sustainability |  2 min. read

Fishing has always been an essential source of food for many civilizations and continues to be a significant part of American culture. Modern materials and equipment coupled with sustainable aquaculture practices have allowed unprecedented numbers of people to enjoy what our waters have to offer.

We also know that marine ecosystems are essential to the sustainability of coastal communities and our planet’s long-term health. While ocean plastic waste is a global crisis, recycling – both mechanical and molecular – and an increased awareness around ocean health and sustainability will make a difference.

A recent breakthrough is giving another reason for hope. Years-long research into new polymers is yielding some new discoveries that could make a real difference to reducing plastic waste in the oceans. At Cornell University, chemists have developed a new polymer – isotactic poly (propylene oxide) – which is strong enough for marine use while also being biodegradable.

Poly(propylene oxide) made from the petrochemical building block propylene has been around for a long time, but chemists can now align bits of the polymer molecule–isotactic is a word that describes alignment of specific groups of atoms called functional groups—to impart better physical characteristics to the resulting plastic.

Most biodegradable materials are not resilient enough for marine uses, such as fishing nets or ropes, but this new polymer could change that. Ultraviolet radiation can degrade the material much more rapidly, which could have a game-changing impact.

The Cornell team has spent 15 years developing the material, and while it will take more time to fine tune it and get it into production on a larger scale, it is just the latest example of an industry always on the forefront of innovation. This polymer again shows that petrochemicals are part of the solution for reducing marine plastic waste, with research and innovation leading the way.

As consumers continue to recycle, limit their use of single-use plastics, and work toward more sustainable practices, a cleaner ocean – achieved without harming critical marine industries – is closer than we think.