- The number of publications and obtained quotes affects academic career and grants.
- Hype is increasingly used to make scientific articles more visible and quoted.
- The results are shown in a negative way using hyperbole to raise attention.
- This situation creates bias in publications and baseless concerns in public opinion.
- Guidelines are urgently needed to improve scientific communication.
The idea that it is a risk to promote biodegradable mulch films on a large scale is becoming established at academic level based on a series of articles similar in approach and conclusions. However, a critical analysis shows that the results do not justify the alarmist tones. The negative effects of hand-cut pieces of virgin material added in pots at concentrations up to 714 times the application doses are ascribed to the “accumulation” and “contamination” of “residues” and “debris” of biodegradable plastics. Yet, no accumulation and no contamination of biodegradable microplastics has actually been shown. No Predicted Environmental Concentration was established, thus the use of the term risk is inappropriate. The hypothesis of transient phytotoxicity of organic matter under decomposition i.e., an artificial outcome of the experimental scheme used, was not considered. A scrupulous approach to terminology is very important for the quality of communication and for the development of innovations. Scientific communication is a delicate process in which and to avoid hyperbole, there must be strict logical and lexical consistency between results and conclusions. Guidelines on the communication of the results of studies on biodegradable mulch must be developed to avoid the spread of unjustified concerns.
In conclusion, I would like to appeal to the authors of scientific articles on biodegradable plastics to be cautious when speaking of hazard, risks, accumulation. This is important both for the biodegradable plastics sector (which is obviously damaged by studies that evoke environmental risks) and for academic research which must be immune from the temptation to reach hasty conclusions to improve the visibility of publications. The term “risk” is loaded with very negative implications and should only be used when the data is sufficient to enable incontrovertible conclusions to be drawn.
This article demonstrates that guidelines on the communication of findings regarding biodegradable plastics need to be developed in order to avoid the dissemination of unjustified concerns based on hype, hyperbole and publication bias rather than solid data and objective conclusions.
This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.
CRediT authorship contribution statement
This article was written by a single author: Francesco Degli-Innocenti
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare the following financial interests/personal relationships which may be considered as potential competing interests: Francesco Degli-Innocenti reports a relationship with Novamont SpA that includes: consulting or advisory. The author works as a consultant for a company that produces biodegradable plastics and is coordinator of the scientific technical committee of Assobioplastiche, the Italian association of bioplastics.
Many thanks to Tony Breton, and Marco Pecchiari, for helpful discussion and suggestions. Many thanks to Sara Guerrini and Selene Chinaglia for helping me find the relevant literature.
Well, as you can read the author (Francesco Degli-Innocenti ) didn’t receive any grants for this study … but is on the payroll of Novamont, one of the largest bioplastic company manufacturing agricultural bioplastic mulch films. The contributor of this study, Tony Breton is UK Market Developer for Novamont. We can conclude that both are not ‘really’ independent on this matter. Novamont is a company owned by chemical company Versalis which is in its tun owned by oil company ENI.
Most compostable plastics are combined with a fossil-based co-polymer called ‘PBAT’ mainly manufactured by BASF.
When it comes to ‘agricultural’ mulch films, the degradable plastic is marketed as ‘soil biodegradable’ but when it comes to packaging, the same degradable plastic technology is marketed as ‘compostable’ plastics.
Biodegradable plastic mulch films are ‘supposed’ to be plowed under after use and are supposed to degrade over a period of 12 to 18 months. The harvest frequency (the number of times a farm land will be harvested depends on the type of crop grown but is usually minimum once a year, some crops are harvested several times per year).
The problem being that in reality after being plowed under, the bioplastics films disappears from the eyesight but doesn’t degrade; It’s just ‘buried’ under the soil. The temperature of the soil is just not high enough to start the degradation process. Over the years, there’s an accumulation of plastics in the soil that will contaminate the roots and crops with plastics …. and thus, microplastics will enter the food chain and we’ll be eating plastic. I think that’s what some people want us to do: eat plastic
PBAT is also known to be toxic for the soil and its main producer BASF is one of the biggest polluter on the planet. Their moral standard are highly questionable too (PBAT and the Third Reich Connections (FREE)).
Agricultural mulch film is one of the main pillar of ‘intensive’ agriculture while we should be aiming for sustainable agriculture (Sustainable vs Intensive Farming). Agricultural mulch films require heavy tractors to plow the film under and the use of heavy tractors “traumatises” the soil and its ecosystem. Sustainable agriculture involves scrubbing or scratching the soil surface (like our ancestors did), not plowing 50 cm of soil under.
It’s about money and commercial interests … public health doesn’t seem to be a concern for the EU CAP.
The industrial use of pesticides (intensive agriculture) for instance contaminates the whole fruit, vegetable and cereal, not just the surface of the crop. The seeds are fed with toxic pesticides since the first day …. the toxic chemicals are in the fruit and thus they annihilate the positive effect on your health of eating fruits and vegetables. We can thank the EU CAP for this.
It’s a battle of David vs Goliath ….. multinational commercial interests versus the people and the planet. Multinational companies are not bad ‘in se’; it’s the moral standards, culture and strategy that defines whether they’re on the right side of Karma.
We’re at a crossing road of societal choices … and we should avoid that money and greed become the guiding principles. We need to take care of our health and of the environment.
It’s never too late to change the course of your life …; try to behave like a gentleman !