Most synthetic polymers — Greek for “many parts,” because they are long chains of many identical molecules — were not designed to disintegrate or disappear. On the contrary, they were meant to last as long as possible once they began replacing metals and glass in long-lasting things like automobiles and airplanes.
But synthetic polymers became so popular and adaptable that decades later, they’re at the root of the global burden of billions of tons of plastic waste. The latest villains in environmental campaigns are disposable plastic products formed from synthetic polymers — straws, cigarette filters, coffee cup lids, etc. Over the past few decades, this mismatch between material and product life span has built up plastic waste in landfills and natural environments, some drifting in oceans until mounds and mounds have reached the ends of the world and bits have been ingested by marine life.
Now, scientists are in search of polymers or plastics with a built-in self-destruct mechanism.