Biodegradable packaging and products are seen by many as part of the solution to the global plastics crisis. However, until now, there has been very little research examining their precise fate and impact in the open environment.
To address that, a team of UK scientists has been awarded £2.6million for a four-year project assessing how these materials break down and, in turn, whether the plastics or their breakdown products affect species both on land and in the marine environment.
BIO-PLASTIC-RISK is being supported by a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. It is being led by researchers at the University of Plymouth, including its world-renowned International Marine Litter Research Unit, working alongside colleagues at the University of Bath and Plymouth Marine Laboratory.
The project brings together a team of marine and terrestrial biologists, material and polymer scientists, and ecotoxicologists, and will expand on extensive previous research by the partners into the causes and effects of microplastic pollution.
Among its key objectives will be to develop a better understanding of biodegradable materials, how they react on entering the environment, and how their characteristics can be tailored to minimise any potential risks. It will also explore any effects the chemicals added to the plastics might have on organisms, how that, in turn, affects wider ecosystems and whether certain parts of our environment are more at risk than others.
In addition to the academic involvement, the project partners include representatives from the global textiles and packaging industry, and an advisory group representing Government agencies, biodegradable bioplastics producers, commercial users, water authorities and NGOs.
Researchers believe the project will ultimately also be of interest to sustainability experts and social scientists, helping to guide understanding about any positive effects biodegradable materials can have for the circular economy and to inform behaviour change initiatives in relation to packaging choices and disposal.
Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth, is Principal Investigator on the project. His team previously coordinated research that showed that biodegradable bags can hold a full load of shopping three years after being discarded in the environment. He said: