Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, United States of America; Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, Washington State University, Puyallup, WA 98371, United States of America. Electronic address: [Email]
Plastic is ubiquitous in modern life, but most conventional plastic is non-biodegradable and accumulates as waste after use. Biodegradable plastic is a promising alternative to conventional plastic. However, biodegradable plastics must be thoroughly evaluated to ensure that they undergo complete degradation and have no adverse impact on the environment. We evaluated the degradation of biodegradable plastics during 18-week full-scale composting, and determined whether additives from the plastics are released upon degradation. Two biodegradable plastic films-one containing polybutylene co-adipate co-terephthalate (PBAT) and the other containing polylactic acid/poly-hydroxy-alkanoate (PLA/PHA)-were placed into meshbags and buried in the compost. Degradation was assessed by image analysis, scanning electron microscopy, Fourier-transformed infrared spectroscopy, electrophoretic mobility, δ13C isotope analyses, and single particle mass spectrometry of mulch fragments. The results showed >99% macroscopic degradation of PLA/PHA and 97% for PBAT film. Polymers in the biodegradable films degraded; however, micro- and nanoparticles, most likely carbon black, were observed on the meshbags. Overall, biodegradable plastics hold promise, but the release of micro- and nanoparticles from biodegradable plastic upon degradation warrants additional investigation and calls for longer field testing to ensure that either complete biodegradation occurs or that no long-term harm to the environment is caused.