The unknown effect on our ecosystems
Biodegradable bioplastics (BBPs) are a category of materials that offer considerable potential to reduce the global environmental challenge resulting from the accumulation of end-of-life plastic. BBPs are made from renewable carbon such as plant material (bioplastics) and, as a consequence of their molecular structure and resulting properties, are regarded to have enhanced rates of biodegradation compared to conventional plastics.
BBPs are already widely used in applications with substantive pathways to the natural environment (agricultural mulch film, textile fibres, microbeads in cosmetics). Yet our understanding about their fate in the natural environment is poorly understood, because key information on the kinetics of degradation and any potential environmental effects of their breakdown products (fragments and chemical additives) is lacking. Biodegradation has been demonstrated under specific conditions, such as commercial compositing, and there are associated standards, but studies indicate degradation can be slow or incomplete under natural conditions.
Led by the University of Plymouth, BIO-PLASTIC-RISK brings together our internationally recognised polymer scientists, marine and terrestrial biologists and ecotoxicologists together with the University of Bath together with Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Project Partner Lenzing AG and an Advisory Group including representatives from Government agencies, BBP producers, commercial users (Sainsbury's and Riverford Organic Farms), Water Authorities as well as NGOs.
Collectively the team will establish the fate of BBPs in the environment, their effect on organisms and ecosystem function and develop environmental risk assessments. The research will be used to guide development of future BBPs and provide clear, reliable information on the benefits and risks of using them.
The project will:
- characterise BBPs in terms of their composition (chemical structure, additives) as well as features that can be used to assess deterioration (molecular weight, thickness, strength) in the environment
- establish the fate of BBPs in marine and terrestrial environments in terms of rates of deterioration as well as the pathways and environmental accumulation of BBPs and their breakdown products
- examine any associated direct effects of BBP deterioration on marine and terrestrial organisms (animals such as mussels and earthworms and plants such as herbs and grass) and to examine any indirect consequences on ecological and biogeochemical processes
- use this information to evaluate the fate, hazards and risks of BBPs in the environment and at what concentration levels they may have an impact on animals, habitats and ecosystem function.