Is PEG biodegradable? (9 properties of PEG) 

In this article, it shall be discussed whether PEG is biodegradable or not. Other related topics that shall be covered are: 

  • What is PEG?
  • What are the medical applications of PEG?
  • What are other applications of PEG?
  • What is biodegradability?
  • How harmful are polymers?
  • FAQs

Is PEG biodegradable?

No, PEG is not biodegradable.  Polyethylene glycol is a synthetic, biocompatible, hydrophilic material synthesised in the lab. Since it is non-natural, it is not biodegradable. 

Although PEG is associated with immense applications related to medicinal, biomedical, pharmaceutical, chemical and industrial sectors; it is harmful to the environment being non-biodegradable and a potent pollutant. 

What is PEG? (9 properties of PEG) 

PEG expands to Polyethylene glycol which is a polyether compound that is derived from non-renewable sources of energy. The applications of PEG range in many industries but are primarily associated with the medicinal industry. 

Polyethylene glycol is also termed polyoxyethylene or polyethylene oxide due to its chemical structure. Speaking of chemistry, it is synthetic, biocompatible and hydrophilic in nature. 

The terms synthetic and polyether may ring some bells. You may recall that most petroleum-based products are termed as such. While these materials exhibit great applications and usability, their effect on the environment is not well stanced. 

This is because the use of fossil fuels to derive polymers and polyethers comes at the cost of our environment because the use of fossil-based products is linked to negative environmental phenomena such as global warming and GHG emissions. This aspect will be deliberated in future sections. 

As per the applications of PEG, it is associated with a multitude of applications. The utilitarian value of PEG is well-known. It is associated with the medical industry, chemical industry and also the commercial sectors. 

As has been mentioned, PEG is synthesised in the lab and is present in nature. PEG is made from the polymerisation of ethylene oxide. That is why PEG is also called polyoxyethylene or polyethylene oxide. 

The following are the properties of PEG that contribute to its distinctness and also its utilitarian values: 

  • Inert
  • Odourless
  • Non-toxic
  • Colourless
  • Non-volatile
  • Soluble in water
  • Soluble in organic solvents
  • Hydrophilic 
  • Biocompatible 

What are the medicinal applications of PEG?

As mentioned, substances such as polymers that are synthesised in the lab are of great utilitarian value because they are tailored in a way to give maximum benefits. That is why materials such as polymers often stretch too far that they become inconsiderate of the environment. 

It has also been established that PEG is associated with several applications in different industries. These may be: 

  • Medicinal
  • Pharmaceutical 
  • Industrial 
  • Commercial 
  • Chemical 
  • Biomedical 

In the medicinal industry, PEG is associated with a multitude of uses and applications. One of the primary functions of PEG in the medicinal, pharmaceutical and biomedical industries is to be used as laxatives, 

This use is based on the water-driving ability of PEG which enables PEG to draw water to waste. As a result, the use of PEG as laxatives is well-known and well-built and many great companies are cashing in on this use of PEG. 

However, the role of PEG in the medicinal industry is not just limited to being used as a laxative. It also can be used as inert material for drug delivery. This is important because PEG is responsible for the formation of a conjugate between the drug and antibody, increasing the overall efficiency of drugs. 

PEG use is also expanded to protein analysis and gene therapy wherein the conjugation and vector-related properties of PEG are utilised. PEG is also used in blood banks because PEG can improve the salience of antibodies and antigens. 

In a nutshell, the medicinal applications of PEG can be summarised as the following: 

  • Use in blood banks
  • Use in drug delivery 
  • Use in gene therapy
  • Use in protein analysis 
  • Use for in-vitro essays
  • Used as a laxative
  • Used to make antibody-drug conjugate 
  • Use in gastrointestinal tract investigation 
  • Use in tissue regeneration 
  • Use in wound healing 
  • Use in regenerative medicine 

What are other applications of PEG?

As mentioned, the advantages and applications of PEG are not just linked to the medicinal industry. There are other various uses of PEG as well that belong to other industries. 

For example, PEG can be used as a binding or dispersing agent in the chemical industry due to its hydrophilic nature and great solubility. This can be further used to improve particle separation and the prevention of clumping. 

PEG can also be used in the studies of protein owing to its hydrophilic properties. 

PEG is also used in the food industry to delay food spoilage. It may also be used as a coat to provide protection and lubrication. 

The use of PEG for preservative purposes is also well-built. PEG is used in cosmetics, textiles, paper and petroleum products. It may also be used as solvents, binders and lubricants. 

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be explained as a process in which microbes break down complex waste into simple substances. These simple substances may become part of nature. 

Therefore, biodegradability can be detailed as a measure to make sure that there is no waste. If waste is not dealt with, it will create problems for all of us, not to mention environmental degradation. 

Consider that you are not able to dispose of your waste for a day or two. It will be problematic but still manageable. However, consider that you are not able to dispose of your waste for many hundred years. What do you think will happen?

You won’t be able to live where you can deal with the waste. The same is the case for the earth. If waste is not dealt with, the living conditions of our world will keep on deteriorating until there is no life left in this world. 

Usually, there are two types of waste from the perspective of biodegradability. One is waste which can be degraded by the action of microbes. This is termed biodegradable waste. This waste causes little to no harm to the environment because it does not stay. 

Examples of biodegradable wastes may include: 

  • Food waste
  • Human waste 
  • Manure Sewage 
  • Hospital waste 
  • Dead animals & Plants 
  • Waste from slaughterhouse 
  • Toilet paper

The second type of waste is one that can not be degraded by the action of microbes. This waste is usually man-made and is synthesised in the lab. This is called non-biodegradable waste.

Examples of non-biodegradable waste may include: 

  • Plastics 
  • Hazardous substances
  • Pesticides
  • Fertilisers
  • E-wastes
  • Rubbers
  • Polymers
  • Shopping bags 
  • Packaging materials
  • Plastic bottles 
  • Nuclear Wastes

While the effects of biodegradable waste are not that much, the effects of non-biodegradable waste are incredible. If not dealt with properly, these effects will also become irreversible.  

As a result, the following negative effects are observed in the environment and in life in general. 

  • Loss of life
  • Greenhouse gas emissions 
  • Pollution
  • Global warming
  • Destruction of habitats 
  • Infiltration into the food chains 
  • Destruction of ecosystems 
  • Soil erosion 
  • Deforestation
  • Depletion of water reserves
  • Damages to the crops 

The non-biodegradable waste can also impact human health. Several impacts of non-biodegradable waste on health are: 

  • Skin allergies
  • Cancer
  • Reproductive problems 
  • Neurological problems 
  • Eye infections
  • Rashes
  • Inflammation 
  • Organ damage 
  • Psychological impacts 

How harmful are polymers?

Polymers are a very important example of non-biodegradable waste and perhaps the most significant too. The issue has taken the entire world into its grip.

The use of polymers dates back to the start of the 20th century; however, the use was increased by manifolds after the second world war. The world recognised the importance of polymers as their uses ranged in all fields and all sciences. 

With increased consumerism, more polymers started to be used or perhaps misused. For example, It is cited that a single plastic bag (a polymer)  may be used for a span of some minutes to several hours yet it takes almost forever to degrade it. 

Regardless of the negative impacts of plastic, it is still used in many parts of the world largely because it is cheap and is of good use. Statistics reveal that single-use plastics amount to almost half of the total plastics production. 

As per the stats, the production of polymer plastics is expected to rise to up to 1000 million tons by as early as 2050. However, this production figure was less than 3 million back in the 1950s. This exemplifies the extreme misuse of plastic. 

It is reported that as many as 700 species have been affected by plastic either through consumption or entanglement. The consumption of plastic results in the death of animals. The consumption of plastics also causes liver damage and reproductive complications in animals.  

Is PEG biodegradable?

It has been detailed that PEG is a synthetic polyether compound that is synthesised in the lab. Since it is synthesised in the lab, it is considered non-natural and therefore, non-biodegradable. 

What this means is that PEG, despite its amazing applications and uses, will persist in the environment for up to a thousand years (which is next to infinite given the limited scale of humanity) and will cause environmental degradation. 

In addition to being non-biodegradable, it may also leach out into surface and groundwater and cause water pollution and also affect aquatic life. The production of PEG also contributes to GHG emissions and global warming while relying on non-renewable resources. 

PEG is made from ethylene oxide which is a known substance linked with cancer, mutation and reproductive problems. PEG may also toxicate the soil and thus affect plant life. 

Conclusion 

It is concluded that Polyethylene glycol is a synthetic, biocompatible, hydrophilic material synthesised in the lab. Since it is non-natural, it is not biodegradable. 

Although PEG is associated with immense applications related to medicinal, biomedical, pharmaceutical, chemical and industrial sectors; it is harmful to the environment being non-biodegradable and a potent pollutant. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is PEG biodegradable?

Can PEG cause cancer?

Yes, the ethylene oxide in PEG is a known mutagen and carcinogen. 

Can you recycle PEG?

Yes, PEG like other polymers can be recycled and reused. This way, the strain on the environment caused by PEG can be reduced.

References

  • D’souza, A. A., & Shegokar, R. (2016). Polyethylene glycol (PEG): a versatile polymer for pharmaceutical applications. Expert opinion on drug delivery, 13(9), 1257-1275.
  • Alcantar, N. A., Aydil, E. S., & Israelachvili, J. N. (2000). Polyethylene glycol–coated biocompatible surfaces. Journal of Biomedical Materials Research: An Official Journal of The Society for Biomaterials, The Japanese Society for Biomaterials, and The Australian Society for Biomaterials and the Korean Society for Biomaterials, 51(3), 343-351.
  • Bailon, P., & Berthold, W. (1998). Polyethylene glycol-conjugated pharmaceutical proteins. Pharmaceutical Science & Technology Today, 1(8), 352-356.
  • Sonesson, U., Björklund, A., Carlsson, M., & Dalemo, M. (2000). Environmental and economic analysis of management systems for biodegradable waste. Resources, conservation and recycling, 28(1-2), 29-53.

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