Is biodegradable plastic mulch the solution to the agricultural plastic problem? (3 ways in which PE is harmful) 

This article will explain how effective biodegradable plastic mulch is a solution to the agriculture plastic problem. Other factors covered would include:

  • Is biodegradable mulch actually biodegradable?
  • What is the agricultural plastic problem?
  • Can biodegradable mulch be recycled?
  • FAQs

Is biodegradable plastic mulch the solution to the agriculture plastic problem?

In many ways, biodegradable mulch is the solution to the agriculture plastic problem. Conventional plastic mulch is made from polyethylene (a synthetic polymer) which may have an impact on health, the environment, and various ecosystems. 

However, there are certain reservations that are associated with the use of biodegradable plastic mulch. These include the possible toxic side effects of bioplastics and the disruption of the natural order of flora and fauna. To know this better, future research is required. 

Further, recycling is possible however, it may be limited mainly because the mulch may be contaminated with soil or by agrochemicals. But, theoretically, it is possible. 

Is biodegradable mulch actually biodegradable?

What is biodegradability?

Biodegradability can be defined as the breakdown of waste or materials by the action of microbes and enzymes. 

It is a natural process and nature’s own way of dealing with the waste problem. If there is no biodegradability, there will be harmful effects on the people and the planet. 

This is because the waste will cause pollution and will contaminate every aspect and factor associated with life and well-being. That is why we have the concept of biodegradability that is so liked and treasured by scientists and common people as well. 

However, not all materials are biodegradable. As the name suggests, biodegradation is the degradation caused by bio. Bio means life. It is caused by microbes such as bacteria, fungi, algae, et cetera. 

These microbes will only degrade the waste that they deem apt for their nutritional health. Such materials include plant waste, animal waste, manure et cetera. This waste is termed biodegradable waste. 

However, the microbes would not degrade the materials that have no nutritional content. As a result, such material will remain in the system for hundreds of years. Such waste is termed non-biodegradable waste. 

Perhaps the most common example of non-biodegradable waste is plastics. Plastics such as PET or HDPE are fossil-based, synthetic polymers that are not found in nature but are designed or rather synthesised in the labs. 

Let us take an example of PET. PET is a synthetic polymer made from the derivatives of fossil fuels. That is why it may require more than 500 years to degrade. This means PET will remain in the environment or landfill settings for more than 500 years. 

Why biodegradable plastic?

The problem is not just with the increased degradation time. The problem is also with the negative impacts that are caused by the existence of non-biodegradable material. These are countless such as habitat degradation or soil pollution. 

That is why there is a growing interest in biodegradable waste as compared to non-biodegradable waste. This is mainly because of the advantages that are offered by biodegradable waste. 

The increased tendency toward biodegradable waste has enticed or asserted the scientific community to seek biodegradable prospects for non-biodegradable waste. 

It is a result of this that we have biodegradable plastics. Plastics are synthetic polymers that are made from the derivatives of fossil fuels. 

Polymers are macromolecules made from repeating units (monomers) that are linked by chemical bonding such as covalent bonds. Polymers may be natural and synthetic. Natural polymers include DNA, RNA, and proteins. Synthetic polymers include plastics and rayon fibres. 

Owing to the fervent proclivity toward biodegradable material, there has been a shift in the making of plastics. 

While conventional plastics are made from fossil-based material (being non-biodegradable), contemporary plastics are made from plant-based materials. These materials include corn starch, sugar cane, sugar beets, mushrooms, and DNA from animals.

That is why these plastics are termed bioplastics or DNA plastics. As it may be guessed, these plastics are biodegradable in nature. 

Is biodegradable plastic mulch the ultimate solution?

However, let us get into further details here. Let us probe into the matter that bioplastics (such as biodegradable plastic mulch)  are actually biodegradable. 

This is argued because a number of researchers indicate otherwise. There are two factors that determine the biodegradability status of any product. One is the time taken for the product to degrade and the other is its environmental impact. 

As per the case of bioplastics, it is said that such plastics may degrade in about 1-3 years. The exact duration will vary based on external conditions and the type of plastics. However, some studies assert that bioplastics still cause environmental problems of toxicity and disturb the natural flora and fauna. 

Hence, based on it, it can be stanced that although biodegradable plastic mulch is biodegradable (it may be commented that the time taken is still a bit off the chart), there may be negative impacts of biodegradable plastic mulch. To really get into the reality of the issue, further research and scrutiny is required. 

What is the agriculture plastic problem?

Let us now study and consider the environmental benefits that are achieved by using biodegradable plastic mulch as compared to non-biodegradable plastic mulch. 

This can also be assessed by taking into consideration the negative effects of polyethylene. Polyethene is a polymer that is made from ethylene monomer. It is the common material that is used in the making of common plastic mulch which is non-biodegradable. 

This polyethylene is made from petroleum-based products. The use of such materials is indicative of the fact that there will be detrimental impacts on the environment. 

Polyethylene and the environment 

The fact that polyethylene is made from the derivatives of fossil fuels is an assertive argument to imply that there are negative and annihilative effects of polyethylene on the environment. 

This is mainly because when the derivatives of fossil fuels are employed, there are two things that happen: 

  • Earth non-renewable resources are used
  • The burning of fossil fuels releases harmful gases

When fossil fuels are burnt, there is a release of harmful gases such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, SOx, and NOx, to name a few. These gases are termed greenhouse gases (GHG). 

GHGs are responsible for the global phenomenon of global warming. Global warming is marked by the global rise in temperature. When this happens, there are further repercussions as well. These may include: 

  • Rising sea levels
  • Soil erosion
  • Soil infertility
  • Damage to crops
  • Deforestation
  • Unprecedented weather patterns
  • Floods
  • Loss of crops
  • Disruption of habitats
  • Alteration of food chains
  • Destruction of ecosystems 
  • Acid rain 
  • Pollution
  • Decreased tree count 
  • Insect & pest attack 

These are some of the repercussions that are caused by the anomaly of global warming. This is mainly because there is a profuse level of interconnection between various aspects of the Earth. When there is a disruption in one aspect, the effects are reciprocated at other levels as well. 

Polyethylene and waste accumulation 

Another major problem that is caused by the use of non-biodegradable materials such as polyethylene is that it leads to waste accumulation. When this happens, the waste management systems are affected and this is reciprocated in other aspects of Earth as well. 

As per the current situation, it is already quite dense. There are more than 2 billion tons of waste generated every year. This is about 5 kgs of waste made by every person on a daily basis. 

The use of polyethylene as a raw material for bubble wrap will further exacerbate this situation mainly because of the fact that it is a non-biodegradable material. This means that it will remain in the environment for many years and will contribute to the decapacitation of wastewater systems. 

Polyethylene and health effects

The detrimental impacts of polyethylene are not just limited to the environment but are also reciprocated to human health. 

That is why there are a number of health implications that are associated with the use of polyethylene. These effects may include: 

  • Autism 
  • Cancer
  • Infertility
  • Developmental complications
  • Hormone disruptions

These effects are in line with the general trend that is seen in the case of non-biodegradable materials. Non-biodegradable materials due to their synthetic nature are known to cause a lot of health implications because they do not gel well with the natural biological systems. 

Various forms of cancer are associated with the use and consumption of non-biodegradable materials. Children are greatly affected by the prevalence of the said materials. Also, impacts such as neuro complications, hormone disruptions, and behavioural anomalies are repeatedly cited in the literature. 

Can biodegradable mulch be recycled?

Consumers who are conscious of the biodegradability status of mulch also want to know if they can recycle biodegradable mulch. In many ways, recycling is a better alternative to disposal because it implies no waste at all.

As regards the question, yes it is possible to recycle biodegradable mulch. However, it may be limited mainly because the mulch may be contaminated with soil or by agrochemicals.

When biodegradable mulch is recycled, it is not needed to be made from scratch. This means that the source is not given any unnecessary burden.

Biodegradable mulch is made from plant-based materials such as sugarcane or mushrooms. When biodegradable mulch will be recycled then there would not be any burden on plant production.

This will increase the possibility of decreased use of agrochemicals such as fertilisers or pesticides.

Also, when biodegradable mulch is recycled, half of the production processes would already have been done. This means that there will be decreased energy consumption. And because energy is mostly taken from fossil fuels, it would also mean that by recycling biodegradable mulch, there will be a decrease in GHG emissions.

This may mitigate the exacerbated environmental conditions and anomalies such as global warming, deforestation, and unprecedented weather patterns.

Conclusion

It is concluded that in many ways biodegradable mulch is the solution to the agriculture plastic problem. Conventional plastic mulch is made from polyethylene (a synthetic polymer) which may have impacts on health, the environment, and various ecosystems. 

However, there are certain reservations that are associated with the use of biodegradable plastic mulch. These include the possible toxic side effects of bioplastics and the disruption of the natural order of flora and fauna. To know this better, future research is required. 

Further, recycling is possible however, it may be limited mainly because the mulch may be contaminated with soil or by agrochemicals. But, theoretically, it is possible. 

Frequently Asked Questions: Is biodegradable plastic mulch the solution to the agriculture plastic problem?

What is mulch used for?

Mulch is used mainly for saving water, suppressing weeds, and improving soil quality. 

Does biodegradable plastic mulch reduce labour costs?

Yes, it does because, unlike plastic mulch, biodegradable mulch does not need to be removed after use. 

References

  • Bandopadhyay, S., Martin-Closas, L., Pelacho, A. M., & DeBruyn, J. M. (2018). Biodegradable plastic mulch films: impacts on soil microbial communities and ecosystem functions. Frontiers in Microbiology, 9, 819.
  • Atiwesh, G., Mikhael, A., Parrish, C. C., Banoub, J., & Le, T. A. T. (2021). Environmental impact of bioplastic use: A review. Heliyon, 7(9), e07918.
  • Tokiwa, Y., Calabia, B. P., Ugwu, C. U., & Aiba, S. (2009). Biodegradability of plastics. International journal of molecular sciences, 10(9), 3722-3742.
  • Hahladakis, J. N., Velis, C. A., Weber, R., Iacovidou, E., & Purnell, P. (2018). An overview of chemical additives present in plastics: Migration, release, fate and environmental impact during their use, disposal and recycling. Journal of hazardous materials, 344, 179-199.
  • Watt, E., Picard, M., Maldonado, B., Abdelwahab, M. A., Mielewski, D. F., Drzal, L. T., … & Mohanty, A. K. (2021). Ocean plastics: environmental implications and potential routes for mitigation–a perspective. RSC advances, 11(35), 21447-21462.
  • Zimmermann, L., Dombrowski, A., Völker, C., & Wagner, M. (2020). Are bioplastics and plant-based materials safer than conventional plastics? In vitro toxicity and chemical composition. Environment international, 145, 106066.

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