Will biodegradable plastic mulch work?

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Biodegradable plastic mulch products are designed to provide the same weed suppression, moisture retention, and soil temperature altering benefits that traditional plastic mulches do. Thicker products are commonly used for crops that have a long growing season, or for double cropping where slower degradation is desired. Climate is also considered when selecting a product. Preliminary research conducted through our USDA SCRI project shows that the products are performing as designed, productivity is similar to that achieved with conventional polyethylene mulches, and weed control exceeds bare-ground growing methods. The products biodegrade after they are tilled into the soil. Rate and extent of mulch biodegradation varies based on the product and the soil microenvironment. Paper mulch biodegrades rapidly, and within six months of soil-incorporation, little is visible to the human eye. Biodegradable plastic mulch is fragmented by tillage, and fragments are reduced in size over time, but it is still uncertain how quickly or completely they biodegrade under field conditions. The components of biodegradable plastic mulch have been shown in laboratory studies to be biodegradable. Our USDA project will assess biodegradable plastic mulch decomposition in the soil under field and laboratory conditions.