USDA SCRI Biodegradable Mulch Project

Mulching is standard practice to suppress weeds and conserve water when growing specialty crops, like tomatoes, pumpkins and strawberries. Biodegradable plastic mulches (BDMs) have been developed as substitutes for conventional plastic mulch because the latter presents removal, storage and disposal issues, including environmental issues from illegal burning and dumping. However, lack of knowledge about BDMs, and concerns about their unpredictable breakdown and potential residues, have prevented their widespread use. To overcome these issues researchers and Extension specialists from three universities have joined together to study the performance and adoptability of BDMs using, in the first two years of field studies, pumpkins as the model cropping system. Peppers and sweet corn are the crops to be used in Tennessee and Washington, respectively, for the second two years of the study.

The project Performance and Adoptability of Biodegradable Plastic Mulch for Sustainable Specialty Crop Production is funded by the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute for Food and Agriculture, through its Specialty Crop Research Initiative, under award 2014-51181-22382. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed on the website “Biodegradable Mulch” are those of the site authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Who’s involved?

team of researchers and Extension specialists from three universities:

​University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture

Washington State University

Washington State University

Montana State University

​Montana State University

An Advisory Committee of stakeholders including:

– Growers

– BDM Industry representatives

– Intermediaries: suppliers and Extension agents

– Scientific advisors in composting, economics, food safety, plant sciences, polymers, sociology, and soils  

What will the project do?

A.Evaluate the impacts of long-term use of BDMs 1) on the soil ecosystem (i.e., soil quality, microbial communities, and long-term storage of carbon); and 2) on a specialty crop production system. 

B.Identify BDM degradation mechanisms (e.g., changes at the macroscopic and molecular levels) and interrelationships among the life-cycle stages of BDMs: their origin (fossil fuel-derived vs. biobased), service life (role of weathering), and potentially sustainable end-of-life outcomes (ambient soil degradation vs. retrieval followed by composting). 

C. Use diverse methodologies across diverse scales (field vs. laboratory studies) and climate regions for evaluating the degradation of BDMs to improve performance and evaluation. 

D. Identify potential BDM-associated disease and pest problems. 

E. Identify BDM supply chain steps with focus on economic relevance and regulation, assess the economic feasibility of agricultural products grown with BDMs, and explore producers’ perceptions of BDMs to better understand the bridges and barriers to BDM adoption. 

F. Educate growers, intermediaries (e.g., Extension agents, agricultural input suppliers, and crop consultants,) consumers and the general public on BDMs and biobased mulches and plastics. 

G.Interact with a community of stakeholders (consumers, growers, intermediaries, regulators, composters, and scientists) to increase interest in sustainable deployment of BDMs throughout the U.S. and worldwide. 

H. Educate and train undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral research associates, and principal investigators on skills needed to work on transdisciplinary research problems.

From what prior work does this project benefit?

From 2010 to 2013, a transdisciplinary research and Extension project investigated the use of an experimental spunbond nonwoven mulch, leading commercially-available biodegradable mulches, and conventional black plastic mulch in both high tunnel and open-field specialty crop production. An objective was to measure mulch biodegradabilty in the soil. (USDA SCRI SREP Award # 2009-02484). The record of that project is available through Washington State University and the University of Tennessee.