by Norman Martin
Pulling Plastic: Texas Tech Researchers Dig Into Biodegradable Mulch
Jennifer Moore-Kucera leads the soils team in the multidisciplinary project that hopes to find cost-efficient, labor-saving and environmentally friendly alternatives to polyethylene plastic use in crop production.
Each year more than a million feet of black plastic is used to cut back-breaking weeding costs in such high-value crops as lettuces, strawberries and tomatoes. Now, Texas Tech agriculture scientists are part of a national research team developing and testing biodegradable mulches that could provide an alternative to the pricey polyethylene plastic. In 2004, 143,300 tons of plastic mulch was used for U.S. agricultural purposes.
“Biodegradable mulches have the potential to break down naturally after one season without hand removal from the field,” said Jennifer Moore-Kucera, an assistant professor of soil and environmental microbiology. “But the big plus is that an alternative mulch could create a reduction in the waste stream of plastic headed for landfills.”
Moore-Kucera adds that although many homeowners utilize organic sources such as wood bark or compost, the practice is not common on large-scale agricultural systems.
About the Project
Spanning three states and five research institutions, the three-year U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, “Research and Education on Biodegradable Mulches for Specialty Crops Produced Under Protective Covers,” is examining whether experimental spunbond nonwoven fabrics and leading commercially available biodegradable mulches are of similar quality to conventional black plastic in both protected and open field specialty crop production.
On the Texas leg of the project Moore-Kucera and her graduate students, along with Texas AgriLife Extension Service Vegetable Specialist Russ Wallace, are examining how biodegradable mulch impacts the health and quality of soil. Under the best of circumstances, biodegradable mulch should leave no toxic residue in the soil, would improve soil quality and decrease soil-borne plant diseases.
Moore-Kucera is assessing the impact of mulch biodegradation on soil and root systems using tomatoes grown outdoors and inside what’s known as a high tunnel, a plastic-covered, framed structure similar to a greenhouse but without heat or electricity.
Nationally, the interdisciplinary team includes biosystem engineers, textile scientists, and agricultural specialists in economics, horticulture, weed science, plant pathology, sociology and soil microbiology. Institutions involved include Texas Tech, Washington State University, Texas A&M University, University of Tennessee, Western Washington University and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.
The researchers note there’s a potential to expand the biodegradable mulch research to other types of plastic beyond agriculture. Today only a small percentage of all plastics used are agricultural. There are many other potential opportunities for this technology; plastic bags are just one example. The $2 million project is funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
The Department of Plant & Soil Science
Texas Tech's plant and soil science department, with its excellent and diverse faculty, staff and students, is focused on three key goals: improving plants for human use, increasing knowledge about our environment, and enhancing sustainable practices in plant production and value-added processing through education, research and outreach.
The department offers research opportunities, scholarships and two Bachelor of Science degrees in horticultural and turfgrass sciences, and environmental crop and soil sciences. The department offers Master of Science degrees in crop science, plant protection, horticulture, soil science and agriculture, as well as a unique multiple-degree option in conjunction with a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree.
Doctor of Philosophy degrees in plant and soil science with several areas of emphasis are also offered, along with opportunities for distance learning.
Learn more about the Department of Plant and Soil Science at Texas Tech.
Photos courtesy Norman Martin.
Norman Martin is Director of Communications & Marketing for the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Texas Tech University.