Biodegradable Bioplastics - Assessing Environmental Risk (BIO-PLASTIC-RISK)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Biological and Marine Sciences

Abstract

Biodegradable bioplastics (BBPs) are a category of materials that offer considerable potential to reduce the global environmental challenge resulting from the accumulation of end-of-life plastic. BBPs are made from renewable carbon such as plant material (bioplastics) and as a consequence of their molecular structure and resulting properties are regarded to have enhanced rates of biodegradation compared to conventional plastics. Currently only around 1% of plastic production is in the form of bioplastics; driven by the potential advantages demand is growing rapidly.

BBPs are already widely used in applications with substantive pathways to the natural environment (agricultural mulch film, textile fibres, beads in cosmetics). Yet our understanding about their fate in the natural environment is poorly understood, because key information on the kinetics of degradation and any potential environmental effects of their breakdown products (fragments and chemical additives) is lacking. Biodegradation has been demonstrated under specific conditions, such as commercial compositing, and there are associated standards, but studies indicate degradation can be slow or incomplete under natural conditions.
This ambitious, yet highly tractable, 4-year research proposal brings together internationally recognised polymer scientists, marine and terrestrial biologists and ecotoxicologists from the Universities of Plymouth and Bath together with Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Project Partner Lenzing AG and an Advisory Group including representatives from Government agencies, BBP producers, commercial users (Sainsbury's and Riverford Organic Farms), Water Authorities as well as NGOs. Collectively the team will establish the fate of BBPs in the environment, their effect on organisms and ecosystem function and develop environmental risk assessments.
We will characterise BBPs in terms of their composition (chemical structure, additives) as well as features that can be used to assess deterioration (molecular weight, thickness, strength) in the environment. We will then establish the fate of BBPs in marine and terrestrial environments in terms of rates of deterioration as well as the pathways and environmental accumulation of BBPs and their breakdown products. This will inform experiments to examine any associated direct effects of BBP deterioration on marine and terrestrial organisms (animals such as mussels and earthworms and plants such as herbs and grass) and to examine any indirect consequences on ecological and biogeochemical processes.

Collectively, these outcomes, together with existing literature, will be used to evaluate how the fate and behaviour of BBPs in the environment relates to hazards in order to conduct a risk assessment to show at what concentration BBPs and their associated chemicals may have an impact on animals, their habitats, and how the ecosystem functions. Estimates of safe levels in soil and water will be derived as well as factors that add uncertainty and indicate priorities for future research.
Outcomes in terms of potential risks, will be communicated alongside the benefits of BBPs - so as to provide a balanced perspective and help guide development for the next generation of BBPs. This will be disseminated by publications and stakeholder engagement, including: data sharing with OECD and Defra; a technical stakeholder workshop (industry, government, consultancy, NGOs. etc) and a training event - how to complete a risk assessment for plastics.
There has been considerable media attention on plastic pollution and this has translated into an urgent call for action by the public. However, current understanding of the most appropriate actions is less clear and reliable information on the benefits and risks of novel materials such as BBPs, is lacking. Hence, this research is of critical importance to guide changes in commercial practice and policy responses, such as implementation of the 25 year Environment Plan.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description University of Pisa (Italy) 
Organisation University of Pisa
Department Department of Chemistry and Industrial Chemistry
Country Italy 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Different material samples were supplied by University of Bath and Plymouth for analyses to be carried out at the University of Pisa. Francesca De Falco visited the University of Pisa in October 2021 to analyse these materials with their instruments Evolved Gas Analysis coupled to Mass Spectrometry (EGA-MS) and Pyrolysis coupled to Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry (Py-GC/MS). The main scope of this joint research activity is to explore the potential and effectiveness of Py-GC/MS as analytical tool for plastic pollution studies. In detail, the technique has been applied to characterize the chemical composition of the different materials analysed (i.e. polymer, additives present, etc.), and to detect possible changes due to environmental degradation. The outcome will be used to optimize the application of Py-GC/MS for the identification and quantification of microplastics in environmental samples. Our team is actively contributing to the design of the experiments, data analysis and with expertise on biodegradable polymers and degradation. Periodical meeting are held between the Universities of Pisa and Plymouth to discuss the data analysis and plan the joint experimental activity.
Collaborator Contribution University of Pisa has contributed by hosting in their laboratories Francesca De Falco in October 2021. Moreover, they are currently contributing to data analyses, performing additional analyses on samples provided by our team, providing extensive knowledge on Pyr-GC/MS data, participating to periodical meeting with our team.
Impact ongoing
Start Year 2021
 
Description BioPlastic Risk web site 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Established project website
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/marine-litter/bio-plastic-risk#:~:text=Led%20by%20the%20Universi...
 
Description Futures 2021 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact In September 2021, over 500 individuals and families locally and across the South West joined us to discover research across science, heritage, health and history, and meet the University of Plymouth researchers who work to make a difference to our daily lives.

FUTURES2021 brought research to life in new and exciting ways online and in-person, with a whole host of events ranging from storytelling to panel discussions, comedy, quizzes and broadcasts on community radio stations.

FUTURES is an annual public engagement festival dedicated to showcasing research and innovation, as part of the 2021 European Researchers' Night celebrations. With more than 300 cities across 30 European countries taking part, this exciting annual event showcases the South West's rich scientific and cultural heritage through fun, interactive learning with the Universities of Bath, Bath Spa, Bristol, Exeter and Plymouth.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
URL https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/research/futures2021
 
Description HUMAN HEALTH & THE OCEAN IN A CHANGING WORLD 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact 16:30-17:30 SESSION 3: OCEAN POLLUTION AND HUMAN HEALTH - Part 2
Mini-review (3 x 15'):
• PERSISTENT ORGANIC POLLUTANTS, PESTICIDES AND OTHER CHEMICALS
Dr. Amro HAMDOUN - Scripps Institution of Oceanography
• PLASTICS AND MICRO DEBRIS
Pr. Richard THOMPSON - University of Plymouth
• HEALTH EFFECTS OF CHEMICAL POLLUTANTS
Pr. Patrick FENICHEL - University of Nice
SHORT COMMUNICATIONS (3 x 5')
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://www.oceanhealthmonaco.org/
 
Description Presentation to UK Forestry Research group 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A Presentation was given to the stakeholder group 'UK Forestry Research Group', a UK wide network of Forestry practitioners and professionals. The event was online and attended by around 30 individuals. The Bio Plastic Rick project (overview and aims) was introduced along with a background to biodegradable plastics. The presentation was well received, with questions and discussion following the talk. Many of the practitioners stated they had learnt new things about biodegradable plastics and want to remain engaged with the project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
 
Description The future: Considering what Impact might microplastics have on the GI tract and Liver" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact British Society of Gastroenterology. Every year we organise sessions as part of the annual conference. This year, in one of the sessions we are planning is 3 talks on the influence of modern society on the GI tract/liver. We read your extensive royal society publication and concluding paper "Plastics, the environment and human health; current consensus and future trends" with great interest.

We would very much like to hear about what impact plastics/microplastics might have on the GI tract and liver in the future. We wondered if you would be willing to give a 20 min talk giving an overview of the topic at our conference in Liverpool? (Monday, June 15th 2020).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description aKick Off meeting for project participants and stakeholders/data holders 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Kick Off meeting for project participants and stakeholders/data holders
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
 
Description b. 6 month project progress meeting 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact 6 month project progress meeting
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021