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Degradable PE agricultural film nearing commercialization

By: Kate Tilley

April 3, 2013

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — A degradable polyethylene film that helps crops grow better is likely to be commercially available within the next couple of years.

The PE film, developed by Melbourne-based stretch film manufacturer Integrated Packaging Group Pty. Ltd. (IPG), acts like a greenhouse around seeds, trapping moisture and boosting germination rates. As the seedlings grow, the film breaks down.

IPG agricultural division sales manager Andrew Makin said although similar products exist, the film's unique feature is its ability to degrade above and below the ground. At six microns thick, it is about a third the thickness of regular agricultural films, but has the same mechanical properties.

IPG manufactures packaging products and machinery for agricultural and industrial markets, including LLDPE stretch and shrink films, plastic wrap machines, and mulch films. Its major markets are Australia, New Zealand, Canada and North America. Makin said IPG manufactures products in Australia and New Zealand for sale in those markets or for export to Canada and North America.

IPG has worked with Australia's Cooperative Research Centre for Polymers (CRC-P) since 2005 to develop the degradable PE film.

CRC-P is a research group made up of scientists from six universities around the nation, five corporate partners, including IPG, and two Federal Government entities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization. CRC-P's goal is to establish Australian manufacturing as a leading provider and exporter of products that meet emerging global needs in three areas - health therapies and delivery; water and food security; and low-cost solar energy — using advanced polymer technology.

IPG's degradable film is applied mechanically when seeds are planted and buried at the edges to form a temporary greenhouse. The film is tailored to remain intact for three to six months before it degrades.

Makin said IPG initially worked with Irish grain farmers to develop a film to extend their short growing season. The farmers were using a plastic film with perforated holes, but found plants growing under the film grew the same, if not better, than plants that grew through the holes.

IPG helped the farmers develop a film with degradable additives so the plants could grow through the plastic. Makin said degradability depends on the amount of sunlight. "While that worked for film above the ground, sunlight did not reach film under the ground," he said.

IPG began working with CRC-P and Melbourne-based non-profit agricultural research organization Birchip Cropping Group Inc. to develop an improved version of the film with better controlled degradability, allowing it to degrade above and below the ground.

Researchers found the film improved crops' productivity, reliability and efficiency. Its benefits include assisting germination; improving water efficiency, because water is not lost through evaporation and transpiration; and reducing pest damage. The film's greenhouse effect accelerates the growing process so farmers can potentially produce two crops in one season.

CRC-P CEO Ian Dagley said the next phase of research, which began in mid-2012, involves IPG, CRC-P, Birchip, and Brisbane-based environmental organization Greening Australia, fine-tuning the process. Trials will be conducted at different times of the year to optimize planting times and determine the ideal film life.

Dagley said if trials continue to be successful, the film can be commercially available "in the next couple of years."

Makin said researchers are in the final stages of commercializing the film and IPG then plans to export it. He will not comment further on those plans.

Makin said degradable additives in the film varied, depending on the crops. For example, maize is an aggressive sub-tropical plant that grows upwards and can break through the film. Some Australian native trees are less aggressive, so the film must degrade before the plants break through.

Trials with native species have found plants thrive under higher temperatures created by the film. Australian natives are currently grown to seedlings in nurseries, then manually planted. The film will enable substantial time and cost savings as miles of seeds can be planted in hours, eliminating the need for nursery growth initially.