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Plastic mulch provides many positive advantages for the agricultural sector. Yet, the widespread utilization of plastic mulch is beginning to yield more harms than benefits since an increasing amount are accumulated in farmland, particularly in China, who is the world’s largest food producer. In aware of “white pollution”, plastics companies in China emerged with their own fully biodegradable plastics to cultivate greener and more sustainable plantation.

Plastics mulch accumulated in farmland causes serious pollutions and affect crop yields
Plastics mulch accumulated in farmland causes serious pollutions and affect crop yields
Photo: 123

Plastic mulch film is used to suppress weeds and conserve water in crop production. The advancement of China’s agricultural industry sees the widespread applications of mulch films. Statistics showed that there are 300 million mu of land in China where polyethylene (PE) film is used in cultivation. The annual consumption, growing by an annual average of 10%, now exceeds 1 million tons. Although the use of mulch film in agriculture yields more crops and brings enormous economic benefits, it also severely pollutes the ecological environment.

As used plastics mulch accumulates in arable land, it gradually pollutes both the ecological environment and the landscape. They obstruct the crops from absorbing water and nutrient, causing the yield of some crops to drop by as much as over 20%. Plastics mulch technology, once regarded as the “white revolution” in agricultural industry, has turned completely into “while pollution”.

Annual consumption of plastic mulch in China exceeds 1 million tons

There are currently two ways to alleviate the pollution problems caused by mulch film: through recycling and the use of biodegradable alternatives. According to the analysis and comparison of researches conducted in China and abroad, “partially biodegradable plastic mulch” (e.g. photo- and oxo-biodegradable PE film, starch-based PE film) is an ineffective solution. Film residues in the soil are in excess of more than 30% of the film consumption and then accumulate year by year.

Traditional plastic mulch like photo- and oxo-degradable films are easy to degrade under ultraviolet (UV) light, but the fragmented films remain underground for many years. As for starch-based film, although the starch part is partially degradable, the PE is not, leaving even more PE fragments in the soil and making the pollution problem even worse. Other types of products in the market, such as water-soluble film and liquid film are easy to dissolve in water, which means they are incapable of meeting the requirements on plastics mulch in terms of service life, heat insulation and hydration power.

Thanks to their special molecular structure, fully biodegradable plastics remain stable during use. After its service life, the material can ultimately be decomposed in compost, soil, water or activated sludge and so on. It is degraded into CO2 and water by microorganisms or by enzymes inside animal’s or plant’s body. With good bio-compatibility and biodegradable properties, fully biodegradable plastics mulch is an eco-friendly option to tackle the problem of film residuals.

Three major advantages of 100% biodegradable films

Mulch films that are made of fully biodegradable plastics have a number of advantages. First of all, the film’s covering time is controllable and therefore the products can be tailored according to the region where it will be used, the natural conditions there and the target covering time limit. After finishing its duty, the film will be fully degraded automatically. Secondly, labor costs to reclaim the film after use are avoided. Last but not least, the possibility of secondary pollution is ruled out as the film can ultimately metabolized into water and CO2.

Utilizing 100% biodegradable plastics is a general trend in the West nowadays. Central Europe and Japan have gradually turned to these products for growing of cash crops.

It will take a rather long process for Chinese farmers to shift from traditional mulch film to biodegradable alternatives. Europe’s successful experience tells that a favorable policy is important in promoting the use of biodegradable plastics since they are more costly than polyolefin plastics. As biodegradable mulch film is three to five times more expensive than its conventional counterpart, neither the industry nor the farmers are affordable in short term, and that is why policy support is needed.

Government policies significant in promotion

The beneficiaries should include bio-based materials and fully biodegradable materials suppliers by means of value-added tax refunds, tax reduction, and procurement for use in key projects, etc. If policy support is put in place, the biodegradable plastics market in China will expand quickly.

How big is the potential of degradable mulch film market in China? As mentioned above, plastic mulch consumption is growing at an average rate of 10% annually and exceeds 1 million tons nowadays. Based on these figures, the market value generated from the consumption of conventional mulch film reaches RMB 10 billion to RMB 20 billion a year. If all traditional mulch film is replaced by degradable ones, the value will approximately be RMB 20 billion to RMB 30 billion a year.

At the National People’s Congress and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference Sessions 2013, Yuan Zhimin, Chairman of the Board of Kingfa Scientific and Technological Co. Ltd, who is also a member of the Chinese National People’s Congress, put forward the use of biodegradable mulch film to reduce “white pollution” in China’s farmland.

His proposal received widespread recognition. Driven by Hu Chunhua, the Communist Party Secretary of Guangdong province, and Che Jun, the Communist Party Committee Secretary for Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Kingfa began field tests of biodegradable mulch film with XPCC. The results were encouraging.

Kingfa deepen cooperation in Xinjiang

Based on the success of these tests in 2013, Kingfa and XPCC will begin in-depth cooperation for test and demonstration planting with biodegradable mulch film across the entire Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in 2014. Representatives of the XPCC signed a three-year agreement with Kingfa. The 14 divisions of XPCC will apply biodegradable plastic mulch in 140,000 mu of farmland in 2014, and expanding to 6 million mu in 2016.

Mulch film is one of the many Research & Development (R&D) focuses of biodegradable plastics at Kingfa. As Europe is the earliest region to establish related laws, policies and industry standards for biodegradable plastics, the company first piloted its biodegradable plastic agricultural film promotion, among other biodegradable plastic products, in Europe.

As of now, Kingfa has successfully developed two series of fully biodegradable and bio-based plastics, with a total of 10 grades available under the trademark ECOPOND. This product family involves technologies such as the synthesis and reactive extrusion of polyester resins, as well as alloy modification and different processing methods for applications. Kingfa said its materials comply with the EN 13432 standard, arguably the most stringent biodegradability standard in Europe. In general, it requires biodegradation (oxygen consumption and production of CO2) of 90% of the materials within 180 days, while the fragments have no adverse impact on plant growth.

Also committed to the promotion of biodegradable mulch films is Ecomann Biotechnology. Since May 2012, the company has cooperated with local governments to introduce fully biodegradable plastics mulch in various plantations in Shandong province by means of sales subsidies. These plantations include seven villages and towns in Zoucheng city, peanut plantations in Feizui county, the garlic growing Jinxiang county, and Qufu Development Zone.

Ecomann pushing hard in Shandong province

In addition, Ecomann adopts a scheme to integrate testing, demonstration and promotion activities in Shandong province. The aim is to study in phases the feasibility in planting different types of crops in the province.

The Zoucheng City Agriculture Bureau released a report on mulch film for peanut cultivation testing in October 2012. The result said that Ecomann’s fully biodegradable mulch film enhances thermal enhancement, soil water preservation and seedling growth promotion, functions similar to conventional plastics mulch.

Moreover, its biodegradable property helps to partially adjust air humidity and nutrient change of soil. Such indirect control over the course of peanuts growth facilitates a better coordinated nutrient and earlier maturing crops, thereby improving economic benefits.

Ecomann’s fully biodegradable mulch film makes use of industrial genetic engineering technology for the direct synthesis of high molecular materials inside the body of microorganisms. The company has already commenced a production line comprising raw material production and modification process.

The technology is a biotechnology special research project under China’s 863 program (or State High-Tech Development Plan established in March 1986). Fully biodegradable and exhibiting good mechanical properties, Ecomann’s polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) biodegradable materials fulfill the requirements of EN 13432 and receive the OK Compost Home Certificate in Europe.

In the future: achieving a green cycle

Through the current projects in Shandong province, Ecomann hopes to take a multi-faceted leading role in the development of biodegradable mulch film industry. It also hopes to enhance the knowledge of all levels of government departments on biodegradable plastics, in order to guide and promote the establishment of related policies.

By strengthening the awareness of the public and potential customers, spreading eco-friendly philosophies and shaping consumers’ concepts, Ecomann strives to have everything prepared for its next step, that is, the local production of biodegradable plastics.

Kingfa also emphasized that the use of fully biodegradable mulch films will definitely promote development and innovation in the chemistry industry, film processing industry, and agricultural sector. It will, in turn, give a boost to the further advancement in “green” plastic mulch.

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