Iowa State University scientists research advantages of horticultural bioplastics

The flower on the left is planted in a bioplastic container while the flower on the right is planted in a conventional petroleum-based pot. ISU researchers have studied the environmental advantages bioplastic containers may present. (ISU, James Schrader)
Jake Slobe | November 23, 2016

Research conducted by Iowa State University horticulturists show that new bioplastic materials could allow gardeners to tend their plants more sustainably and could potentially help plants self-fertilize and grow healthier roots.

“Bioplastics present a range of environmental advantages, such as improved biodegradability, that conventional petroleum-based plastics can’t claim”, said William Graves. Grave, associate dean of the ISU Graduate College and professor of horticulture, and a team of researchers recently concluded their five-year study on bioplastics in an attempt to find materials that show promise for horticultural uses, such as the plastic pots and flats that retailers use to sell immature plants.

Bioplastics come from renewable biological sources like plants and large-scale adoption in the marketplace could ease dependence on fossil fuels.

The study looked at many options for bioplastic made from sources such as polylactic acid and the more biodegradable polyhydroxyalkanoates. They also included byproducts that result from the production of corn, soybeans, and ethanol.

They found bioplastic containers have the potential to offer another major advantage that petroleum products can’t:  the ability to self-fertilize plants.

Plastics made from bio-based materials can release nutrients as the plastic degrades. That could lessen the workload for gardeners, and encourage root growth that will improve the plant’s performance once transplanted into soil or into another container, he said.

The study was funded by a $1.94 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and provided results from conducting market research on consumer preferences regarding bioplastics. The researchers found that consumers prefer bioplastic products that resembled petroleum plastics as closely as possible in appearance, color and texture.

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