The University of Vigo and the EnergyLab technology center are collaborating in the study of the biodegradability of microplastics in natural environments, soil and water, especially through treated water and fertility.
In the last 60 years, plastic production has grown exponentially due to the low cost of its production, the mobility offered by its derivatives and, above all, due to the stability and gravity of said composites. At the global level, it is estimated that around 300 Mt of plastic is consumed every year and if the trend does not change, it is estimated that from 2050 to 12000 Mt of plastic generated per year can be reached worldwide. Inevitably, the increase in the production of these polymers together with inadequate waste management causes more and more tons of plastic to accumulate in the environment over the years.
The problem with this type of waste is that this material does not biodegrade like other products and some types of plastic can remain on the planet for hundreds or thousands of years, contaminating ecosystems and damaging flora and fauna. For this reason, the works dedicated, on the one hand, to finding alternatives to the use of conventional plastics, and on the other hand, to optimizing and improving the management processes of the generated waste have grown. In this way, the use of biopolymers, which are labeled as biodegradable plastics, has been promoted in the market.
Recently, there has been increasing concern about the degradation of these bioplastics in natural and industrial environments, as well as the environmental fate of bioplastic residues from waste management. Consequently, there is a need to increase knowledge about the degradation of biopolymers in waste management in order to implement aerobic and anaerobic degradation processes and improve their performance. Improving the degradation of bioplastics by anaerobic digestion and composting can reduce the concentration of bioplastics that are transferred to land and water, minimizing the environmental potential of these materials.
The POLBIO project was born from this need, in which the Environmental Biology research group of the University of Vigo and the EnergyLab Technological Center collaborated to expand the knowledge about the degradation processes of existing conventional biodegradable plastics and polymers, and to this end the different biodegradation processes of bioplastics (mainly PLA and PHB), and of conventional synthetic polymers, such as polypropylene (PP), are characterized and evaluated for the existing knowledge about the characteristics of the physicochemical process, the effect of potential toxic materials and the impact such as cause in terrestrial and aquatic environments, in particular microplastics.
In addition, it is intended to determine what are the most suitable conditions for the degradation of these materials at an industrial level, in waste treatment plants that include aerobic or anaerobic processes, and useful and innovative information will also be provided to waste treatment managers. it allows the work protocols to be developed and optimized.
The work methodology in this project is based on the determination of the biodegradability of polymers and bioplastics in the aquatic environment and in the terrestrial environment; the study of the tractability of microplastics in the trophic chain and the assessment of ecotoxicological effects on target organisms, and the effects of composting and anaerobic digestion of polymers and bioplastics will also be evaluated.
The project pursues the following environmental objectives:
Climate change mitigation. The project seeks to improve anaerobic digestion processes for the production of biogas, essential for completing the current energy transition and the fight against climate change.
Sustainable use and protection of water and marine resources. Determining the possible adverse effects of the presence of microplastics in rivers and establishing treatment parameters for the reduction of these pollutants treated in urban waste and in fertilizers represent measures for the protection and improvement of the aquatic ecosystem.
Circular economy. Large wastes are covered by recycling, composting and anaerobic digestion processes, which require adaptation to ensure the proper management of new polymers, avoiding the dispersion of microplastics in the environment and thus contributing to the goals of a circular economy.
Pollution prevention and control. This project is based on knowing the effects and degradative capacity of conventional bioplastics and polymers in different media, with the aim of providing useful information for proper use and management, reducing their entry as pollutants in the environment.
Protection and restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems. The effects of microplastics can change the food webs of ecosystems, so this project focuses on the protection of biodiversity, providing knowledge about the presence of microplastics and evaluating their toxicity in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.