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  • Author or Editor: Douglas G. Hayes x
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Biodegradable plastic mulch has the potential to be a sustainable technology in agricultural production systems if the mulch performs equally to polyethylene (PE) mulch and biodegrades completely into constituents that do not harm the soil ecology or environment. Reduced labor costs for removal and disposal, and reduced landfill waste add further appeal to the sustainability of biodegradable plastic mulch. Biodegradable paper mulch has been allowed in certified organic production systems in the United States for many years, while the National Organic Program (NOP) added biodegradable biobased plastic mulch to the list of allowed synthetic substances for organic crop production in Oct. 2014. Although biodegradable plastic mulch may meet the NOP biodegradability requirements (90% biodegradation within 2 years), currently no products have been approved for use in certified organic production because, so far, none meet the requirement of being completely biobased. Additionally, while the synthetic manufacturing processes that are used to make biodegradable plastic mulch are allowed by the NOP, the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the feedstocks, including their fermentation, is not allowed. Organic growers are advised always to check with their certifier before applying a product as some biodegradable mulch manufacturers and marketers erroneously advertise their product as “organic.” Looking forward, if biodegradable plastic mulch meets the NOP requirement of 90% biodegradation after 2 years, there is a possibility that 10% of plastic mulch residuals will persist (if the mulch contains nonbiodegradable ingredients); in this case, after 8 years of annual biodegradable mulch application, plastic residuals in the soil would exceed twice the amount of mulch applied per year. The current methods used by the NOP to test mulch biodegradation are laboratory based and it is uncertain if the results accurately represent field conditions. Reliable field sampling methods to measure residual mulch fragments in the soil need to be developed; however, it is unlikely such field tests will measure CO2 evolution, and thus will not be a true measure of biodegradation. Additional testing is needed under diverse field conditions to accurately quantify the rate and extent of biodegradation of mulch products that are marketed as biodegradable.

Free access

Plastic mulch films contribute to improved crop yield and quality for vegetable and small fruit cropping systems. Although the single-season agronomic performance of conventional polyethylene mulches and soil-biodegradable mulches (BDMs) are similar, over time BDMs can begin to break down during storage and subsequently not provide season-long soil coverage. In this study, the changes in physicochemical properties of BDMs were investigated over 3 years of indoor storage (2015–18) under ideal environmental conditions in two laboratories. Mulches evaluated were black, 20–40 µm thick, suitable for annual vegetable production, and included three BDMs: two polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT)-enriched mulches that are commercially available in North America, an experimental polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanote-based film, and a conventional polyethylene mulch as a control. Tensile properties, specifically peak load and elongation at maximum tensile stress, decreased during storage, particularly for the PBAT-based BDMs, indicating a loss of strength. During year 3 of storage, the tensile properties declined extensively, suggesting embrittlement. The average molecular weight of PLA and PBAT slightly increased during year 1, perhaps due to release of monomers or oligomers, and then decreased extensively during years 2 and 3 due to hydrolysis of ester bonds (confirmed by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopic analysis). The structural integrity of BDMs was assessed during years 2 and 3 of the study (2017–18) in field trials at the locations where they were stored, Knoxville, TN, and Mount Vernon, WA, for vegetable production. The degradation of the BDMs during the cropping season was higher in 2018 compared with 2017, suggesting that degradation of mechanical and chemical properties while in storage may have contributed to rapid degradation of mulches in the field. In summary, BDMs undergo degradation even under ideal storage conditions and may perform best if deployed within 2 years of their receipt date. The farmer should verify that proper storage conditions have been used before receipt and that manufacturing date precedes the receipt date by no more than 6 months.

Open Access