If you own a retro gaming console or have an old roll of packing tape, you've seen how plastics turn yellow as they age. Though the cause of this color change has long been attributed to the formation of molecules that act as dyes — the actual chemical changes that take place remained unexplained. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Applied Polymer Materials have identified surface-based chiral nanostructures as the potential culprit.
Understanding how and why polymers degrade with age is key to designing alternatives that can avoid these pathways, allowing plastic products to have a longer lifespan. For one of the most commonly used plastics, polyethylene, it’s long been suggested that ultraviolet (UV) light – the same light that gives us sunburns – initiates reactions in the backbone of the polymer’s structure that cause the yellow color change.