Imagine what would happen to plastic litter beside the highway if it degraded like paper and cardboard. Ecoplastics of Toronto has developed a plastic that disintegrates in the sun. When ultraviolet rays of the sun hit a coffee cup or hamburger package that has been made with the special resin, the plastic container gradually becomes brittle and breaks apart. It finally degrades into water and carbon dioxide; no toxic chemicals leach into the soil.
Oil to plastic to earth - the whole process takes from 60 days to five years, depending on how much of the Ecolyte resin is added to the original plastic mixture. The company says it adds about 5 percent to the cost of manufacturing a coffee cup or meat tray.
At the same time, plastic articles on supermarket shelves or on the kitchen ledge won't fall apart, says Anthony Redpath, president of Ecoplastics: ``The ultraviolet rays of the sun don't penetrate glass. That's why you can't get a tan through a window.''
Last year Ecoplastics sold just 30 metric tons of the material. This year it is selling more than 20 metric tons a month. The big boost, says Mr. Redpath, has come from Italy. Bologna, Florence, and Venice have banned some plastic packaging and national legislation is pending. Ecoplastics is selling 20 tons a month to its Italian distributor, Bonapace. One of the biggest end users is Dorica Plastica, an Italian manufacturer of plastic bags.
The company's other major customer is a Canadian maker of brown plastic garden mulch, Lecofilms. It stops the weeds growing in the garden and later degrades into the soil. Ecoplastics claims to be the only manufacturer of photo-degradable plastic resins in the world.
``There is an Israeli company which makes a light-sensitive plastic,'' says Redpath, ``but it is an additive. Our product is a co-polymer. In other words it is actually part of the plastic and won't leak into the product.''
The process was invented by Jim Guillet of the University of Toronto. The underlying chemistry was discovered by R. W. Norrish of Cambridge University who won the Nobel Prize for this and other work. Dr. Guillet had worked with Dr. Norrish. Later, with students at the University of Toronto, Guillet developed the science into the present invention.
The patent is still held by the University of Toronto and the university still owns some shares in the firm.