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Potential Use of Earthworms to Enhance Decaying of Biodegradable Plastics

Juan C. Sanchez-Hernandez, Yvan Capowiez, Kyoung S. Ro
ACS sustainable chemistry & engineering 2020 v.8 no.11 pp. 4292-4316
agricultural soils, biodegradability, biodegradation, earthworms, mineralization, mulching, plastics, pollution, vermicomposting
Biosolid application, wastewater irrigation, and plastic mulching technologies are major sources of plastic pollution in agroecosystems. Microplastics may interact with soil physicochemical properties and organisms and negatively affect plant growth. To alleviate environmental plastic pollution, synthetic and biobased biodegradable polymers are replacing nonbiodegradable polymers, but their biodegradation rate in the field is frequently lower than that estimated from standardized biodegradation testing. Plastic polymer biodegradation is a multistep process that involves plastic deterioration, microbial colonization, production of polymer-degrading exoenzymes, and mineralization. However, these physicochemical and biological processes are not always efficient because of unfavorable environmental conditions (e.g., temperature, soil moisture). We propose to use earthworms to increase the biodegradable polymer biodegradation rate by creating optimal habitats for microbial proliferation. Earthworm-induced processes that lead to soil alteration (bioturbation) and solid organic wastes decomposition (vermicomposting) are described to understand how earthworms may favor biodegradable plastic mineralization. Therefore, we suggest two practical sustainable bioengineering strategies: (1) enhancing bioturbation by inoculating agricultural soils with soil-dwelling earthworms, which is viable for horticulture where using biodegradable mulching films increases plastic debris in the soil and (2) vermicomposting with blended biodegradable plastic debris and solid organic wastes, which is complementary to industrial or home composting of single-use biodegradable plastics.