Polystyrene oxidized, converted by sunlight to CO2 and water

Collin P. Ward, Cassia, J. Armstrong, Anna N. Walsh, Julia H. Jackson, and Christopher M. Reddy. Sunlight Converts Polystyrene to Carbon Dioxide and Dissolved Organic Carbon. Environ. Sci. Technol. Lett. XXXX, XXX, XXX−XXX DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.9b00532 

Numerous international governmental agencies that steer policy assume that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. Here, we show that polystyrene is completely photochemically oxidized to carbon dioxide and partially photochemically oxidized to dissolved organic carbon. Lifetimes of complete and partial photochemical oxidation are estimated to occur on centennial and decadal time scales, respectively. These lifetimes are orders of magnitude faster than biological respiration of polystyrene and thus challenge the prevailing assumption that polystyrene persists in the environment for millennia. Additives disproportionately altered the relative susceptibility to complete and partial photochemical oxidation of polystyrene and accelerated breakdown by shifting light absorbance and reactivity to longer wavelengths. Polystyrene photochemical oxidation increased approximately 25% with a 10 °C increase in temperature, indicating that temperature is unlikely to be a primary driver of photochemical oxidation rates. Collectively, sunlight exposure appears to be a governing control of the environmental persistence of polystyrene, and thus, photochemical loss terms need to be included in mass balance studies on the environmental fate of polystyrene. The experimental framework presented herein should be applied to a diverse array of polymers and formulations to establish how general these results are for other plastics in the environment.

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