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Biodegradation of Agricultural Plastic Films: A Critical Review

An Erratum to this article was published on 01 July 2007


The growing use of plastics in agriculture has enabled farmers to increase their crop production. One major drawback of most polymers used in agriculture is the problem with their disposal, following their useful life-time. Non-degradable polymers, being resistive to degradation (depending on the polymer, additives, conditions etc) tend to accumulate as plastic waste, creating a serious problem of plastic waste management. In cases such plastic waste ends-up in landfills or it is buried in soil, questions are raised about their possible effects on the environment, whether they biodegrade at all, and if they do, what is the rate of (bio?)degradation and what effect the products of (bio?)degradation have on the environment, including the effects of the additives used. Possible degradation of agricultural plastic waste should not result in contamination of the soil and pollution of the environment (including aesthetic pollution or problems with the agricultural products safety). Ideally, a degradable polymer should be fully biodegradable leaving no harmful substances in the environment. Most experts and acceptable standards define a fully biodegradable polymer as a polymer that is completely converted by microorganisms to carbon dioxide, water, mineral and biomass, with no negative environmental impact or ecotoxicity. However, part of the ongoing debate concerns the question of what is an acceptable period of time for the biodegradation to occur and how this is measured. Many polymers that are claimed to be ‘biodegradable’ are in fact ‘bioerodable’, ‘hydrobiodegradable’, ‘photodegradable’, controlled degradable or just partially biodegradable. This review paper attempts to delineate the definition of degradability of polymers used in agriculture. Emphasis is placed on the controversial issues regarding biodegradability of some of these polymers.

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Fig. 1


  1. Both humate and humic refer back to organic compounds found in the soil. Humate generally refers to compounds that are generated by the breakdown of plants and animals. Humic generally refers to either one of the organic acids found in soil resulting from the degradation of organic material, or it can refer to the organic layer itself found in many soils. The humic layer in a soil generally appears as a rich, dark earthy layer that is usually found in the upper portions of a soil profile

  2. Classification based on work performed for the Australian Department of Environment and Heritage by Nolan-ITU.

  3. A sink is a reservoir that uptakes a chemical element or compound from another part of its cycle. For example, soil and trees tend to act as natural sinks for carbon—each year hundreds of billions of tons of carbon in the form of CO2 are absorbed by oceans, soils, and trees.


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Correspondence to Demetres Briassoulis.

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Definitions of Degradation Processes

Ageing: the process of growing old or developing the appearance and characteristics of old age; the change of properties that occurs in a material as a result of degradation (whether degradation is due to one factor or is due to the combined action of several factors) [118].

Biodegradation: degradation that is caused by biological activity, especially by enzymatic action, (ISO/CD 16929).

Biodegradation phase: the time in days from the end of the lag phase of a test until about 90% of the maximum level of biodegradation has been reached (ISO/DIS 17556).

Degradation: an irreversible process leading to a significant change of the structure of a material, typically characterized by a loss of properties (e.g. integrity, molecular weight, structure or mechanical strength) and/or fragmentation. Degradation is affected by environmental conditions and proceeds over a period of time comprising one or more steps (ASTM D-6400.99) [6].

Disintegration: The falling apart into very small fragments caused by degradation mechanisms (ASTM D-6400.99) [6].

Lag phase: the time required in days for adaptation and selection of the degrading micro-organisms to be achieved and the biodegradation degree of a chemical compound or organic matter has reached 105 of the theoretical maximum biodegradation derived form the theoretical amount of evolved carbon dioxide and theoretical oxygen demand (ISO/DIS 17556).

Maximum level of biodegradation: the maximum biodegradation in percent a chemical compound or organic matter achieves in a test, above which no further biodegradation takes place (ISO/DIS 17556).

Natural ageing: a standardized artificial process for imparting the characteristics and properties of age [118].

Plateau phase: The times form the end of the biodegradation phase (maximum level of biodegradation) until the end of the test (ISO/DIS 17556).

Primary Biodegradation is the alteration in the chemical structure of a substance, brought about by biological action, resulting in the loss of a specific property of that substance (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Primary Biodegradation: Minimal transformation that alters the physical characteristics of a compound while leaving the molecule largely intact. Partial biodegradation is not necessarily a desirable property, since the intermediary metabolites formed can be more toxic than the original substrate. Therefore, mineralization is the preferred aim (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Theoretical amount of evolved carbon dioxide: the maximum theoretical amount of carbon dioxide evolve after completely oxidizing a chemical compound calculated from the molecular formula; expressed as mg carbon dioxide evolved per mg or g test compound (ISO/DIS 17556).

Theoretical oxygen demand: the maximum theoretical amount of oxygen required to oxidize a chemical compound completely calculated from the molecular formula; expressed as mg oxygen required per mg or g test compound (ISO/DIS 17556).

Ultimate biodegradation (aerobic) is the level of degradation achieved when the test compound is totally utilized by microorganisms resulting in the production of carbon dioxide, water, mineral salts, and new microbial cellular constituents (biomass) (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Ultimate Biodegradation (Complete biodegradation): Molecular cleavage must be sufficiently extensive to remove biological, toxicological, chemical and physical properties associated with the use of the original product, eventually forming carbon dioxide and water (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Ultimate biodegradation: degradation achieved when a material is totally utilized by microorganisms resulting in the production of carbon dioxide (and possibly methane in the case of anaerobic biodegradation), water, inorganic compounds, and new microbial cellular constituents (biomass or secretions or both) (ASTM D-6046.02) [6].

Weathering: the natural process under real conditions imparting the characteristics and properties of age [118].

Definitions of Materials Undergoing Various Degradation Processes

Biodegradable material: a material that has the proven capability to decompose in the most common environment where the material is disposed of within 3 years through natural biological processes into non-toxic carbonaceous soil, water, carbon dioxide or methane [120]. Biodegradation is measured according to the ASTM defined standards [6].

Biodegradable material: a material for which the biodegradation process is sufficient to mineralise organic matter into carbon dioxide or methane respectively, water and biomass (ISO/CD 16929).

Biodegradable plastic: a degradable plastic in which the degradation results from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae (ASTM D-6400.99), (ASTM D-2096.01) [6].

Biopolymer: a material that is partially comprised of natural starch additives with the characteristics of a plastic product (ASTM D-6400.99) [6].

Compostable material: a material that is biodegradable under composting conditions (ISO/CD 16929).

Compostable plastic: a plastic that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and leave no visible, distinguishable or toxic residue (ASTM D-6400.99), (ASTM D-2096.04) [6].

Compostable plastic: plastic capable of undergoing biological decomposition in a compost site as part of an available program, such that the material is not visually distinguishable and breaks down into carbon dioxide, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass, at a rate consistent with known compostable materials (ASTM D-6002) [6].

Degradable plastic: a plastic designed to undergo a significant change in its chemical structure under specific environmental conditions, resulting in a loss of some properties that may vary as measured by standard test methods appropriate to it (ASTM D-6400.99) [6].

Degradable plastic: a plastic designed to undergo a significant change in it is chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties that may vary as measured by standard test methods appropriate to the plastic and the application in a period of time that determines its classification (ASTM D-2096.01) [6].

Degradable: A material is called degradable with respect to specific environmental conditions if it undergoes degradation to a specific extent within a given time measured by specific standard test methods (ASTM D-6400.99) [6].

Hydrolytically degradable plastic: a degradable plastic in which the degradation results from hydrolysis (ASTM D-2096.03) [6].

Inherently biodegradable: is a classification of chemicals for which there is unequivocal evidence of biodegradation (primary or ultimate) in a standard test of biodegradability. Requires “worst possible case” estimates of likely environmental concentrations and therefore further simulation tests may be required (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Non-biodegradable: Negligible (as compared to inherently biodegradable) biotic removal of material under standard test conditions (EPA OPPTS 835.3110)

Oxidatively degradable plastic: a degradable plastic in which degradation results from oxidation (ASTM D-2096.03) [6].

Readily biodegradable is an arbitrary classification of chemicals which have passed certain specified screening tests for ultimate biodegradability; these tests are so stringent that it is assumed that such compounds will rapidly and completely biodegrade in aquatic environments under aerobic conditions (EPA OPPTS 835.3110).

Readily biodegradable: Rapid and complete mineralization (EPA OPPTS 835.3110)

Photodegradable plastic: a degradable plastic in which degradation results from the action of natural daylight UV radiation (solar weight lengths). (ASTM D-2096.02) [6].

Partially biodegradable: Blends of non-biodegradable polymers with biodegradable (usually starch) material. Biodegradation of these materials is limited to the accessible by the micro-organisms part of the biodegradable compound [6].

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Kyrikou, I., Briassoulis, D. Biodegradation of Agricultural Plastic Films: A Critical Review. J Polym Environ 15, 125–150 (2007).

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  • Degradation
  • Biodegradation
  • Mulching films
  • Agriculture
  • Polymers