Using Chemical Coding to Track Plastic Pollution

Plastic pollution is the accumulation of synthetic plastics — think plastic bottles, plastic pack rings, plastic packaging, bottle caps, straws, and hundreds of other plastic items. It’s a widespread problem, and we need to do something about it. 

But why is it a problem? Plastic pollution causes harm to wildlife — animals ingest and choke on plastic. It also causes entrapment, cuts, and other damages. Moreover, it also disrupts habitats, making it difficult for certain animals and species to breed. According to National Geographic, more than 700 species have been negatively affected by plastics. For example, almost every breed of seabird eats plastic. 

Alongside regular plastics, there is also what is known as microplastics — plastics that have been broken down into smaller plastic particles. These are harmful and can enter the human body via inhalation or ingestion, leading to various health issues, including increased oxidative stress, inflammation, and genotoxicity.  

And finally, not only is plastic pollution bad for wildlife and humans, but it’s also bad for the environment. Plastic production contributes to global warming — reducing the use of plastics reduces the need for plastic production, reducing the drastic effect on the environment.

So, how do we stop plastic pollution? Well, some researchers have an idea — using precision polymer chemistry to track plastics back to production.  

The remainder of this blog post will discuss the potential benefits of chemical coding, how the technology works, and how researchers suggest the process would work (although it’s an early-stage project). 

New research to hold people accountable for plastic waste

New research in the Polymer Chemistry Journal proposes chemical coding technology to help track plastic waste and pollution — sourcing the plastic back to where it came from and holding manufacturers accountable for plastic waste and pollution. 

Essentially, during production, the plastic can be labeled using sequence-defined polymers. This would allow the plastic to be decoded — it’s similar to how DNA works, allowing us to track the origin of the plastic without any unwanted side effects.

The scholars suggest that chemistry and law need to work together to effectively track and combat the issue of plastic pollution. One without the other would not provide enough action — those responsible for plastic waste need to be held accountable to prevent the issue from getting worse.

How will chemical coding work?

Polymer technology would be added to plastics during the manufacturing process. The plastic could be decoded with the origin of the plastic revealed — showing where it came from and who produced it.

One of the main challenges researchers are likely to face, however, is jurisdiction — who will allow this kind of tracking, for example. That’s why researchers are suggesting a collaboration with the law/government to implement a legal and effective system of tracing plastic and its origins to find those responsible for plastic pollution.

To summarize 

Researchers propose using chemical polymer technology to code plastic products — this would allow users to trace the origins of plastic, holding those accountable and responsible for plastic pollution. 

The coding would trace the plastic back to manufacturing and would provide a much more controlled approach to plastic management, hopefully reducing waste and plastic pollution. 

In the meantime, we can all help reduce plastic pollution by recycling plastic products, using reusable bags when shopping, and using reusable water bottles instead of plastic bottles, for example. These are just a few examples of ways to reduce plastic pollution — we can all help by cutting down on plastic products, and doing our part for the environment, wildlife, and human life.


What causes plastic pollution?

The majority of plastic pollution is caused by littering and not recycling plastic products. That also includes disposing of plastic products incorrectly. Plastic pollution is also caused by companies creating excessive plastic packing — think Amazon and the excessive amount of plastic that comes with one or two items that you order.

Can plastic pollution be solved?

Plastic pollution can potentially be solved, but we can definitely stop the situation from getting worse. We can all implement measures to reduce plastic waste, contributing to the solution and not the problem.

Why is research on plastic pollution important?

Research on plastic pollution is essential — it enables us to find new ways to slow down and prevent plastic waste, but new research, such as chemical coding, may help find the source of the problem, holding people accountable for plastic waste.