Developing biodegradable plastics to reduce negative environmental impacts

Auras and collaborators developed a biodegradable mulch film along with a black film used for weed suppression.

Tomato plant mulch film experiment in jars.

Plastics are among the most widely used products in the world today, but there’s a catch: Americans toss out more than 30 million tons of plastic each year, with less than 10 percent getting recycled.

Because of its molecular structure, conventional plastic can take upwards of 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. Rafael Auras, an associate professor in the School of Packaging at Michigan State University, believes this is a problem that can be solved through utilization of biodegradable and compostable materials.

Agricultural applications of plastic include mulch films, which suppress weeds, retain soil moisture and soil bed structure, and control soil temperature, among other benefits. Mulch films have traditionally been made of petroleum-based, nonbiodegradable plastics. When they are contaminated in the field, it is costly to remove and recycle them.

  • Auras and collaborators performed a study placing three mulch films over the beds of tomato plants. He found that the white biodegradable film was compromised quickly, primarily through sunlight damage (photodegradation), resulting in poor performance. The black film, however, maintained its structure longer and was comparable in weed suppression to the conventional plastic.

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