Agriculture is project to be one of the industries contributing biodegradable plastics to the environment (Credit Getty Images)

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.

The project

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.

Press release:
 Scientists awarded £2.6million to examine environmental impacts of biodegradable plastics

“This is a truly ground-breaking project. For years, biodegradable materials – including plant-based bioplastics – have been highlighted for their potential to reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste. However, there hasn’t been the detailed research to identify precisely how that might be achieved. Through this project, we hope to establish, in the open environment as opposed to managed waste systems, what works and what doesn’t, in terms of the materials’ characteristics and effects. But we can also explore how best to bring about the changes required to move from our throwaway society and help maximise the benefits of plastics without the current levels of largely unintended environmental and economic impacts.”

Professor Richard Thompson
Professor Richard Thompson OBE

Professor Pennie Lindeque, Head of Science for Marine Ecology and Biodiversity at Plymouth Marine Laboratory, said:

“Biodegradable materials have the potential to provide an alternative to traditional plastics, thereby helping to reduce the impacts of plastic waste. However, we must be sure that such materials – biodegradable bioplastics (BBPs) – and the chemicals they contain, do in fact demonstrate little or no impact on organisms and ecosystems. At PML, we will contribute to this project by establishing the potential toxicity of BBP fragments and chemical additives, as well as determining the interaction of BBPs with ecological and biogeochemical process, in the marine environment.”

Dr Antoine Buchard, Reader in Chemistry within the University of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies and a Royal Society University Research Fellow, added:

“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 in the environment, in particular the seas, so it is important to understand how they can be designed, at the molecular level, to not have any negative impact on the environment, while remaining fit for purpose.”


Partners and collaborators

  • University of Bath
  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory
  • Lenzing AG

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