A World Free of Plastic: Blessing or Curse?

Stefanie Hildmann, 1. Semester M. Sc. Chemistry

In the summer of 2019, the topic “A World Free of Plastic: Blessing or Curse?” was discussed as part of a Q+ course led by Prof. Dr. Katharina Landfester, Prof. Dr. Kurt Kremer and Prof. Dr. Thomas Vilgis of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research. This topic, which is largely one-sided in the general discourse yet deserves differentiated consideration, was given just that during six sessions. The seminar covered this topic in detail, and not without controversy. Students from biology, chemistry, educational science, human medicine, art history, philosophy, physics, political science, and psychology took part. After an introductory meeting, the second session was devoted to interdisciplinary presentations given by students on different topical areas relating to plastics in our world. One example was a presentation on the use of plastics in art, which was particularly eye opening, and served to greatly expand our general point of view. Other presentations dealt with microplastics, packaging, and high-tech polymers.

During the third session, Prof. Dr. Katharina Landfester, Director of the Department of Physical Chemistry of Polymers at the Max Planck Institute brought different types of packaging to class and used these examples to demonstrate to us how the chemical composition of polymers differs, as well as what polymer is suitable for which packaging. The necessity of plastic packaging in the food industry was another topic of discussion.

In the fourth session, Prof. Dr. Kremer, the Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute, covered the topic “Plastic Everywhere.” First, Prof. Dr. Kremer discussed the special characteristics of polymers in general terms. After this, the particularities of polycarbonate and polyethylene were addressed in greater detail. Interesting examples of applications for these plastics were used to explain them in a way that was both very interesting and easy to understand. Fuel cells (as used by Apollo 11 on the surface of the moon) and medical applications were also presented. At the end of the session, we discussed whether society should continue invest time and research funds in the field of plastics, and in particular in the research of alternative plastics.

In the fifth session, Prof. Dr. Katharina Landfester shed light on the topic of biodegradable polymers, first describing the steps of biological decomposition. This begins with biodeterioration, followed by depolymerization from enzymes, bioassimilation from microbial cells, and finally, mineralization. Forms of degradation include surface erosion and bulk erosion. Prof. Dr. Landfester then differentiated between biobased and biodegradable organic plastics. In the packaging industry, the stamp of “Bioplastic” is used for both. While biobased bioplastics, however, are only made up of renewable resources in part, biodegradable bioplastics are organically degradable, yet they are made up of fossil-based or renewable resources. To demonstrate this, Prof. Dr. Landfester brought various examples of packaging with the “bio” label on them – labels that illustrated the use of misleading labeling within the industry very well.

In the final session, Prof. Dr. Thomas Vilgis spoke about the different challenges in the production of automobile tires. Aquaplaning, rolling drag, energy efficiency, and lateral guidance in curves were just some of the topics that came under discussion, pointing to the importance of polymer research for road safety.

As guests at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz, we got a glimpse into their field of research and were confronted with the fact that the topic of plastics is far more multifaceted and controversial than discussions in the media may suggest. Plastics can be both: a blessing and a curse. And it is how we deal with functional plastics that will ultimately decide which one it turns out to be.

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