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, including researchers at the University of Bath, 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.
Dr Antoine Buchard, Royal Society University Research Fellow and Reader at the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies (CSCT) is leading the research team at the University of Bath.
He said: “We use plastics because they can do things that other materials cannot, but because of misguided utilisation, their environmental impact has been overshadowing their benefits. The solution is not to ban plastics altogether: there is rather an opportunity to redesign plastics and how we use them.
“The reliance of plastics on dwindling fossil fuels is real, and bioplastics – those derived from renewable feedstocks such as plants – are part of the solution to make plastics sustainable.
“With circular economy concepts in mind, while recycling and reuse of bioplastics need to be maximised, we cannot ignore that some will leak into the environment, in particular the seas, so it is important to understand how they can be designed, at the molecular level, so they don’t have any negative impact on the environment, while remaining fit for purpose.
“Together with Professors Matthew Jones and Matthew Davidson, we are delighted to have the opportunity to work on this topic with the University of Plymouth and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who are world-leading experts in plastic marine pollution.”
Radio 4’s most recent episode of Inside Science reported on another study looking at the home composting of material labelled “compostible”, like plastic-looking bags made from potato starch. Their conclusion was that the labelling needs to be better – some materials will break down on home compost heaps, but others require industrial composting. We stopped buying teapigs when, a year after putting them in our compost heap, I found myself fishing out the bags that, apart from losing their contents, looked exactly as they had looked when they went onto the pile! https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000ph4n
I think the same may apply to the compostable plastic containers some things at the farmers’ market are sold in. At any rate they seem to survive our garden compost bin, which otherwise rots things down beautifully. But how to get them to the industrial composter? If you put them in with your garden waste collection, would the collectors understand?
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