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Microbial degradation and deterioration of polyethylene – A review

International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation
DOI: 10.1016/j.ibiod.2013.12.014
  • Polyethylene
  • Biodegradation
  • Biodeterioration
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • Geography


Abstract The ability of microorganisms to use polyethylene as a carbon source has only been recently established. This result has significance both from an environmental point of view, due to the accumulation of millions of tons of waste plastics every year, but also regarding the conservation of integrity for infrastructures incorporating this plastic. A number of microorganisms with the ability to grow on polyethylene have been isolated. The effects of these microorganisms on the physiochemical properties of this polymer have been described; these include changes in crystallinity, molecular weight, topography of samples and the functional groups found on the surface. Although the bio-degradation and bio-deterioration of polyethylene has been demonstrated by several researchers, the enzymes involved and mechanisms associated with these phenomena are still unclear. Nevertheless, it is recognized that both enzymatic and abiotic factors (such UV light) can mediate the initial oxidation of polyethylene chains, and given the chemical similarity between polyethylene and olefins it has been suggested that the metabolic pathways for degradation of hydrocarbons can be used once the size of polyethylene molecules decrease to an acceptable range for enzyme action (typically from 10 to 50 carbons). The long-range structure and morphology of polyethylene have shown important roles, with amorphous regions being more prone to microbial attack than crystalline ones. This review focuses on the recent hypotheses and experimental findings regarding the biodegradation of polyethylene.

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