Limitations and Environmental Risks of Polymers

Limitations and Environmental Risks of Polymers

Limitations of Polymers

Physical and Chemical Limitations

  • Polymers, despite their versatility, have certain physical and chemical limitations that limit their performance in certain applications.

  • Most polymers tend to have lower strength and rigidity compared to metals and ceramics. This means they may not be suitable for high-stress applications unless they are reinforced with other materials.

  • Polymers have a higher coefficient of thermal expansion compared to other materials, meaning they expand or contract significantly with changes in temperature. This can lead to issues with dimensional stability.

  • The chemical resistance of polymers is variable. Some polymers can be attacked by certain chemicals, leading to a degradation of their properties.

  • Over time, certain polymers may undergo degradation from different environmental factors like sunlight, oxygen, and moisture, which can decrease their usability and lifespan.

Environmental Risks of Polymers

Non-Biodegradable Polymers

  • The most significant environmental risk of polymers comes from non-biodegradable synthetic polymers like plastics. These materials can take hundreds or even thousands of years to break down in nature, leading to severe pollution problems.

  • Discarded plastic waste can affect terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, harming wildlife and disrupting food chains. For instance, marine animals can mistake plastic waste for food, which can lead to physical harm and toxicity.


  • Over time, larger plastic items can break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics, which can be less than 5mm in size. These are particularly dangerous as they can absorb toxic chemicals and enter the food chain, potentially posing risks to human health.

  • Microplastics can result from the breakdown of larger plastic items, but also from certain products that directly release them, such as cosmetics and detergents.

Energy-Intensive Polymer Production

  • The production of synthetic polymers like plastics is energy-intensive and relies heavily on fossil fuels. This contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change.

  • The raw materials for synthetic polymers, commonly known as feedstocks, are also derived from non-renewable sources which deplete these resources.

Toxic By-products

  • During the production and disposal of some polymers, especially when burned, dangerous toxic by-products can be released. These can negatively impact air quality and may contribute to a wide range of health problems for humans and animals.