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Evidence is presented for radio-frequency plasma pretreatment enhancing the amount and adhesion of TiO2 sputtered on polyester (PES) and on polyethylene (PE) films. Pretreatment is necessary to attain a suitable TiO2 loading leading to an acceptable Escherichia coli reduction kinetics in the dark or under light irradiation for PES–TiO2 and PE–TiO2 samples. The amount of TiO2 on the films was monitored by diffuse reflectance spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence. X-ray electron spectroscopy shows the lack of accumulation of bacterial residues such as C, N and S during bacterial inactivation since they seem to be rapidly destroyed by TiO2 photocatalysis. Evidence was found for Ti4þ/Ti3þ redox catalysis occurring on PES–TiO2 and PE–TiO2 during the bacterial inactivation process. On PE–TiO2 surfaces, Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (ATR-FTIR) provides evidence for a systematic shift of the na(CH2) stretching vibrations preceding bacterial inactivation within 60 min. The discontinuous IR-peak shifts reflect the increase in the C–Hinter-bond distance leading to bond scission. The mechanism leading to E. coli loss of viability on PES–TiO2 was investigated in the dark up to complete bacterial inactivation by monitoring the damage in the bacterial outer cell by transmission electron microscopy. After 30 min, the critical step during the E. coli inactivation commences for dark disinfection on 0.1–5% wt PES–TiO2 samples. The interactions between the TiO2 aggregates and the outer lipopolysaccharide cell wall involve electrostatic effects competing with the van der Waals forces.