Biodegradable polyesters were ionized by electrospray ionization and characterized by tandem mass spectrometry using collisionally activated dissociation (CAD) and electron transfer dissociation (ETD) as activation methods. The compounds studied include one homopolymer, polylactide and two copolymers, poly(ethylene adipate) and poly(butylene adipate). CAD of [M+2Na]2+ ions from these polyesters proceeds via charge-remote 1,5-H rearrangements over the ester groups, leading to cleavages at the (CO)O–alkyl bonds. ETD of the same precursor ions creates a radical anion at the site of electron attachment, which fragments by radical-induced cleavage of the (CO)O–alkyl bonds and by intramolecular nucleophilic substitution at the (CO)–O bonds. In contrast to CAD, ETD produces fragments in one charge state only and does not cause consecutive fragmentations, which simplifies spectral interpretation and permits conclusive identification of the correct end groups. The radical-site reactions occurring during ETD are very similar with those reported for ETD of protonated peptides. Unlike multiply protonated species, multiply sodiated precursors form ion pairs (salt bridges) after electron transfer, thereby promoting dissociations via nucleophilic displacement in addition to the radical-site dissociations typical in ETD. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.