Long-Term Impacts of Biodegradable Plastic Mulches for Sustainable Production of Fruits and Vegetables
Hayes, D. G., L. C. Wadsworth, N. F. Omar, A. L. Wszelaki, J. M. DeBruyn, and S. M. Schaeffer.  2016.  American Ecological Engineering Society 16th Annual Meeting, Knoxville, 7 June 2016.

Abstract:
Use of thin plastic film as mulch is standard practice for specialty crop growers throughout the U.S, to prevent weeds and conserve water and soil. Unfortunately, most plastic mulch after its typical single-season use is stockpiled or burned illegally due to poor biodegradability and limited recycling options, releasing harmful residues such as microplastics into the environment. Our goal is to ascertain the efficacy of biodegradable plastic mulches (BDMs) relative to conventional polyethylene- based mulches as an alternate management practice. However, concerns by growers and key intermediaries have limited the widespread use of BDMs based on identified adoption barriers: lack of knowledge, high cost, and unpredictable breakdown during their deployment. To overcome these hurdles, we are implementing an integrated and transdisciplinary science and application-based research design with a whole- system perspective, aiming to improve crop production, reduce post-harvest and environmental costs, and increase economic vitality for growers and consumers. Particular attention is being paid to the life cycles of the BDMs and the soil and soil microbiological ecosystems, and the ultimate fate of the plastic debris which forms. The overall goals and approaches of our project team (from University of Tennessee, Washington State University, and Montana State University) will be described and initial results will be discussed.