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Degradation during service life, or after careless disposal, is a chemical change that drastically reduces the average molecular weight of the polyvinyl chloride polymer. Since the mechanical integrity of a plastic depends on its high average molecular weight, wear and tear inevitably weakens the material. Weathering degradation of plastics results in their surface embrittlement and microcracking, yielding microparticles that continue on in the environment. Also known as microplastics, these particles act like sponges and soak up persistent organic pollutants (POPs) around them. Thus laden with high levels of POPs, the microparticles are often ingested by organisms in the biosphere.
However, there is evidence that three of the polymers (HDPE, LDPE, and PP) consistently soaked up POPs at concentrations an order of magnitude higher than did the remaining two (PVC and PET). After 12 months of exposure, for example, there was a 34-fold difference in average total POPs amassed on LDPE compared to PET at one location. At another site, average total POPs adhered to HDPE was nearly 30 times that of PVC. The researchers think that differences in the size and shape of the polymer molecules can explain why some accumulate more pollutants than others. The fungus Aspergillus fumigatus effectively degrades plasticized PVC. Phanerochaete chrysosporium was grown on PVC in a mineral salt agar. Phanerochaete chrysosporium, Lentinus tigrinus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus sydowii can effectively degrade PVC.
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