Biodegradable plastics
Circular Plastics

Bioplastics in agriculture: what is it all about, benefits and projects that are being developed

For some decades now the agricultural industry has proposed and developed a series of new materials and alternatives that allow to carry out much more sustainable processes and, even more importantly, processes that are environmentally friendly such as the use of bioplastics in agriculture.

Although the use of these bioplastics is a practice that is not widespread worldwide, it has managed to capture the attention of more commercial farm owners and independent agricultural producers, who see in these organic films one of the best alternatives to continue obtaining quality products, without ignoring the benefits of plastic.

What is bioplastic?

One of the basic definitions of bioplastic is that it is a material that is made from a biological base composed of different materials that have different applications and properties.

A bioplastic should be basically a biological or biodegradable material, it could even have both qualities. It is different from other traditional films made from oil or fossil products because it is made of purely organic materials from renewable sources which should therefore be biodegradable.

For biodegradation to take place it is essential that bioplastics originate from a renewable biological source, otherwise it will not occur, and the decomposition of the material will take longer as it usually happens with standard plastics.

A chemical process develops during biodegradation where existing microorganisms in the environment manage to transform matter into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and compost, without the need to add other artificial elements.

The external environmental factors such as soil temperature, humidity and pH that will influence bioplastic degradation should been considered. However, not all bioplastics are biodegradable, so it is vital for farmers to be well informed about the options available on the market to make the best decision that meets the requirements of their land and crops.

About the issue that not all bioplastics are biodegradable, we invite you to watch this video:
Is bioplastic good for the environment?

How is bioplastic made?

This type of organic film is made from plant products such as agricultural residues, cellulose or starch from potato, corn and soybean plants, whose derivatives help synthesize other substances that tend to acquire the appearance of a conventional plastic mulch. However, its composition and molecular structure is totally different from the composition and molecular structure of a plastic made from oil or other fossil residues.

Bioplastics may also be made from polylactic acids present in corn and sugar cane or, on the contrary, polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) that are generated from microorganisms.

There are two different types of bioplastics:

  1. Biopolymers
  2. Biodegradable plastics

Today there are several plantations worldwide that are exclusively devoted to the production of food that, when harvested, will be transformed using chemical processes into the essential raw material to manufacture bioplastics or, as they are also known, plastics of biological origin.

Corn Fields.Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Corn Fields.Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Benefits of using bioplastics in agriculture

Using bioplastics in agriculture has many benefits, such as minimizing the carbon footprint being generated on the planet since biodegradable bioplastics have the quality of degrading more quickly and naturally, emitting organic molecules that don’t have a harmful impact on the environment.

In the United States, for example, organic farms were only be allowed to use oil-based mulch plastics that are eliminated at the end of the growing season, but they were not allowed to use other types of plastics, such as those based on polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Today, thanks to the development of new alternatives in the plastics’ industry, they are also allowed to use biodegradable plastics, although they must comply with the restrictions and regulations of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Aside from helping reduce the carbon footprint, the use of bioplastics in agriculture has several advantages, such as the following:

  • They don’t contain heavy metals
  • They have the same properties that help suppress weeds as standard mulching
  • They help stabilize the temperature of the root
  • They preserve soil nutrients and moisture
  • They improve the stable development of the plantation
  • They allow to reduce non-biodegradable waste that in the long term ends up in a landfill polluting the environment
  • Their installation is a standard procedure and doesn’t require special machinery
  • Non-renewable raw materials are not consumed
  • Quality plastic products that don’t contain harmful chemical additives can be obtained, since they haven’t experienced alterations to their organic composition and are totally safe for food contact.
  • Widespread use of bioplastics rules out any negative environmental impact and is a viable option within the agricultural sector as long as it will recycled properly and it maintains in the so-called circular economy.

Why aren’t bioplastics used as much?

It is mainly due to the high cost of their acquisition, compared to traditional oil-based plastics. This reality is likely to change in the coming years when costs are mitigated through government subsidies that promote their use and savings for farmers who don’t need to invest in the collection and disposal of used plastics after the harvesting season.

Scientists from several countries are currently working to develop new alternatives to allow producers to increase the use of bioplastics in agriculture and thus, contribute to waste reduction.

Bioplastics made by fruits waste - Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Bioplastics made by fruits waste – Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Case in Chile: using fruit waste to transform it into plastic

Scientist Rodrigo Andler from the Catholic University of Maule, Chile, devised the NatPol with his team, which is a biologically-based product created through a fermentation process in which fruit residues were transformed into plastics. The purpose is to advance from what the fruit industry in Chile used for packaging towards a greener model.

The idea for this innovation originated from noticing the excessive amount of agricultural waste that was produced and usually end up being used in farms to feed the animals, an option that was not ideal for producers. To solve this situation, it was necessary to look for another organic outlet that also made sense for the fruit industry.

With this goal in mind, NatPol not only managed to develop a bioplastic container that met the packaging requirements demanded by the industry, but also created a much more efficient production process, providing a greener alternative to traditional containers.

Along with the bioplastic developed at the Catholic University of Maule, the team is focusing its efforts on obtaining another biopolymer that is very useful and whose goal is to extend the use of bioplastics in the agriculture field to an industrial level, not only in Chile, but worldwide.

Bioplastics made by olive bones - Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Bioplastics made by olive bones – Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Case in Spain: biodegradable and compostable plastics from olive bones

In Spain there is a project aimed at the development of bioplastic packaging called Oliplast, a biodegradable and compostable plastic compound that is produced from the residues of olive bones, a waste that is usually used to produce biomass for energy recovery.

In this case, the idea came from the union of a cooperative specialized in the organic production of extra virgin olive oil with the Institute of Technology of Plastics (AIMPLAS), where the objective was to find a more profitable and sustainable option to use these olive bones, since almost 360 thousand tons of olive bones are generated only in Spain, the main producing and exporting country of olive oil.

The Oliplast project, which is in the initial phase after starting in November 2019, will complete its development in approximately two years. Its objective is to develop a new application to create new materials from olive bones that allow to create much more sustainable packaging for those products that are mainly related to the olive and olive oil sector.

According to information published on the website Fresh Fruit Portal, to make the material, the olive bones must be treated and then incorporated into polymeric matrixes. Bones are prepared and ground to achieve a micrometric particle size and, for the production of the compound, biodegradable polymeric matrixes are chosen using a compounding extruder.

The idea is to produce large quantities of Oliplast to create versatile and sustainable packaging that is more environmentally friendly, as well as to demonstrate to people in general that innovation is a great opportunity to improve current processes in the plastics’ industry, improving the quality of life for all.

We also invite you to read other articles related to the topic of reusing and recycling agricultural plastics, how the use of agricultural plastics can also help in the fight against climate change and specific cases such as the one in Almería where the use of plastics has helped reduce the increase of CO2 due to the accumulation of carbon by plants.

The options of biodegradable mulching available on the market are the following:

The options of biodegradable horticulture twine available on the market are the following:

If you need advice regarding the crops where you could use biodegradable plastics and other considerations before you acquire them, do not hesitate to contact us.

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