Currently, there’s a wide variety of mulch used in agriculture to improve the quality of the land and crops. Among them are biodegradable mulch, which is becoming increasingly popular thanks to their characteristics that make them more economically efficient and environmentally friendly. In this article, we’ll talk about their advantages and disadvantages, and the details that make them special when compared to other types of plastics.
What is biodegradable mulch?
These are plastic films that can biodegrade as a result of the action of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi or algae. The biodegradation process produces carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds and biomass, which are not only harmless to the soil and crops, but also an additional source of fertilization, although limited, of course.
It’s important to make a distinction with oxo-degradable plastics, which are manufactured from conventional polyethene with oxo-fragmentable additives that break down the polyethene into small pieces, thus favouring the contamination of agricultural soils with microplastics.
Why use biodegradable mulching?
For some years now, there has been an increase in campaigns focused on raising awareness among the population regarding the importance of reducing the use of plastics and products that contain them. As a result of that, more companies and agricultural producers are looking for alternatives that allow them to use mulching that, aside from being more environmentally friendly, allows them to maintain the quality of the products they grow.
One of the best alternatives is biodegradable mulch, since, although many of these plastics are made from polymers, they can biodegrade and serve as a compostable material to reduce environmental impact as they end up being incorporated into the soil.
In addition to the action exerted by microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi or algae, the degradation of biodegradable mulch is caused by the intervention of diverse factors such as climate (relative humidity, rain, temperature…), solar radiation received and the growing season among others, so farmers are attentive to establish the most appropriate time for ploughing, which will end the degradation process.
Now, before using biodegradable mulching, an exhaustive analysis or specific tests must be made to determine whether the intended use of the plastic is appropriate, thus guaranteeing the expected useful life of the film.
Advantages of biodegradable mulching:
- Prevent the proliferation of weeds
- Retain soil moisture better
- Improve and protect the structure of the soil bed
- Allow saving more water
- Allow saving on fertilizers
- Allow better temperature control (heating or cooling)
- Control pests (reflective mulch)
- Higher crop yields are achieved
- No plastic waste to collect after harvest
- Prevent soil contamination by not producing toxic waste after use
- Help preserve soil nutrients and improve fruit and vegetable growth
- Don’t contain heavy metals
- Their installation is a standard procedure that doesn’t require special machinery
Disadvantages of biodegradable mulching
Like all products that have positive qualities and bring benefits to farmland, there are certain disadvantages to consider when choosing biodegradable mulches.
- They have a higher cost, compared to other conventional polyethene plastics (in some countries this factor is mitigated by subsidies that promote their use and, on the other hand, there is also the savings implied by not having to collect plastic waste after harvest).
- Some of these plastics may be more sensitive to the action of temperature, the pH of the growing soil and the humidity of the area where they are used (the more humidity there is, the more likely the degradation process will be accelerated).
- The biodegradation process starts in the buried part, as opposed to the exposed part of the film whose biodegradation process will be slower.
- Depending on the thickness of the biodegradable mulching, its degradation may begin earlier than expected (between 2 and 3 months).
Although the disadvantages of these mulches are directly related to the degradation process, these are outweighed by the benefits they offer to crops. Today, there is a great diversity of fruits and vegetables that are cultivated with biodegradable mulch, for example, bell peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, watermelons, melons or cantaloupe and lettuce.
Among the market’s innovations are black micro-perforated mulches for the specific cultivation of asparagus, black/white natural mulch for melon or cantaloupe cultivation and clear mulch for corn. For further information, we recommend reading our article on biodegradable films in agriculture: advantages, disadvantages and their different applications.
Things to consider
When choosing which type of mulch to use, it’s necessary to analyse certain aspects. One of them is the cost, however, it is not all about the price of the plastic, it is also important to consider its characteristics and the benefits it brings to the soil.
According to Javier Pery, Product Manager, and Sara Erlbacher, Export Sales, members of the Armando Alvarez Group, several factors make up the final and total cost of biodegradable or polyethene mulch such as:
- Purchase price of mulching (PE vs. BIO)
- Thickness chosen (the thicker the plastic, the higher the cost per acre)
- The cost of removing mulch from the soil after use varies according to:
- Manual or mechanized recovery
- If it is performed briefly or in-depth
- Mulching thickness
- Cost of transportation to the recycling site and possible recycling charges
- Environmental subsidies
For more information, we recommend watching our Webinar on biodegradable mulching: benefits and profitability.
How to select the type of plastic mulch?
Once the grower has decided to use biodegradable plastic mulch on his crops, one of the first aspects to know is what type of mulch to use.
Biodegradable plastic mulch must comply with the standard EN 17033:2018 or be certified as OK Biodegradable Soil. This is one way to ensure its proper performance in the cultivation soil.
The selection of plastic mulch will depend on the type of soil, the type of crop in which it will be used, and the climatic conditions of each region.
It is always advisable to carry out prior studies of the aspects mentioned above, as well as to consult your distributor to find out the best solution in each case before acquiring a particular type of mulch.
How should the soil be prepared to place the biodegradable mulch?
This is certainly one of the aspects that should not be neglected because biodegradable mulches will have a better performance depending on the condition of the soil and the conducive conditions that are created.
The soil should be prepared in advance to prevent leaving behind stones or other sharp and protruding objects that could stick out of the ground and damage the plastic.
Growers must be very careful to avoid installing plastic mulch on soils with high moisture levels or, on the contrary, when organic fertilizer has been incorporated into them to avoid the premature degradation of the mulch.
It’s important to be very careful to avoid placing the plastic immediately after the application of organic fertilizers. The ideal scenario is to wait at least four weeks to ensure that no residues remain, otherwise they may accelerate the biodegradation of the biodegradable mulch as a result of microbial activity associated with the fertilizer.
Placing biodegradable mulching
The installation of biodegradable mulch is a standard procedure that doesn’t require special machinery, so the same equipment can be used when laying conventional polyethene mulch.
However, it’s important to reduce the film tension and machine speed when placing the biodegradable mulch to avoid tearing or deterioration due to excessive stretching.
It is recommended that growers preparing the land for the placement of the mulch dig a small trench or furrow where they can place the irrigation tape so that it doesn’t come into direct contact with the plastic film, avoiding possible burning of the drip lines.
It’s also necessary to work on non-compacted soil to avoid the risk of breakage of the plastic with the sharp clods or stones that may be present in the soil. For more information on this subject, we recommend you read the following article.
How do I begin planting?
The long-awaited moment has arrived: planting, and to do so it is best to proceed immediately after having placed the biodegradable mulch, so you can take full advantage of all its benefits.
Keep in mind that planting should never exceed 4 days after the installation of the plastic since premature degradation by solar radiation may occur and the properties of the film would no longer be the same.
It should be remembered that the use of biodegradable plastic mulch doesn’t imply variations in water consumption, irrigation flow, or changes regarding a conventional plastic material.
Storage of biodegradable mulching
Due to the special characteristics of this type of film, it is recommended to store biodegradable mulch in a warehouse that’s properly conditioned to protect it from humidity, sunlight and other heat sources that may compromise its integrity and quality, as well as to try to keep it in its original packaging.
One of the recommendations always made to growers is to use the mulch in the same crop season, once purchased, even though plastic mulch rolls can be stored and kept for a reasonable period of time.
However, it all depends on whether the plastics are properly stored and protected according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Improper handling during storage can cause damage to the core or to the plastic sheet, compromising its integrity and affecting the unwinding process.
How should mulch be handled after cultivation?
As we have mentioned, the degradation of a plastic mulch with biodegradable qualities will depend on factors such as climate, temperature, microbiological agents in the soil, humidity, and handling. However, once cultivation is finished the plastic can be left in the soil to finish degrading completely.
“Its final biodegradation will be favored if it is broken into small pieces, using a disk harrow or similar, and if the remains are buried, using a milling machine pass or chute. Also, favoring the activity of microorganisms through the contribution of organic matter and moisture will facilitate the biodegradation process, for example, with subsequent cultivation of green or horticultural manure,” according to the information reflected in the Plasticulture Workshop conducted between Earth University and Armando Alvarez Group.
Some comparisons between plastics
Although more agricultural producers and companies are leaning towards the use of biodegradable mulch, there are still some who have doubts about it. The following is a brief comparison of biodegradable films and conventional polyethene films.
- They are most frequently used in traditional agriculture.
- They are disposed of through landfills, field burning and storage.
- They have the same benefits as polyethene mulch.
- Their biodegradable quality has an important advantage since these plastics don’t have to be removed at the end of the harvest.
- It’s more environmentally friendly.
- It can be tilled directly into the soil at the end of the season.
Cost of polyethene mulch vs. BIO:
When deciding which mulch to use, we should not only consider the purchase price of the plastic because several factors make up the total cost as we mentioned before.
Case study with the cultivation of Melon/Cantaloupe in Murcia, Spain
|MULCH||PE 0,6 mil||PE 0,9 mil||BIO 0,6mil|
|Removal plastic from the field $ / ac||168,53||120,38||0|
|Transportation and Recycling $ / ac||57,78||72,85||0|
|Total cost ($/ac)||313||316||254|
After comparing both plastics, it is evident that, although more expensive, the biodegradable mulch saves much more money in terms of labour costs in the long term, especially at the time of removing the conventional plastics and disposing of them at the end of the harvest.
Installing the biodegradable mulch can be done with the same equipment as traditional plastic mulches, while the plastic waste that is collected and disposed of at the end of the crop cycle is reduced to zero, as it simply remains to be ploughed along with the rest of the soil and vegetation.
Plastic biodegradation doesn’t cause soil contamination and reduces global greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
There may be differences in quality between biodegradable mulching from different manufacturers, as each company involved in their production will have different technologies, knowledge and raw materials that will result in better performing end products.
The degradation time may vary according to the factors influencing biodegradable mulches. For example:
- Film thickness
- Type of crop
- Geographic location
- Raw materials
- Colour of the mulching
Hence the importance of knowing how to choose the mulching that suits your needs.
The competitiveness of using mulching, biodegradable or not, will depend on factors such as production costs, purchase prices of necessary inputs or logistics. Usually, the more larger the production area, the better the economic payback conditions.
As these are biodegradable mulching, made from biopolymers, it’s important to know that their mechanical properties are a little lower, so applying the mulching with excessive tension may cause breakage. Therefore, it is recommended to reduce the tension during the installation of this type of mulching.
Once the crop is harvested, you can cultivate immediately in the same area, unless something unexpected that requires additional attention happens with the soil. The pigments used in the production of biodegradable films are also biodegradable and completely harmless.
Biodegradable mulching recommendations: