Biodegradable Materials Need A Closer Look

July 18, 2022
A 10-year biodiversity probe raises questions for the chemical industry

An international team of experts has identified 15 key issues as likely to have a significant impact on marine and coastal biodiversity over the next 5–10 years. Several of these tie in with chemical industry interests.

Thirty experts in marine and coastal systems from 11 countries, and from a variety of backgrounds including scientists and policymakers, developed an “horizon scanning” technique that focuses on identifying issues not currently receiving widespread attention, but that will likely become important over the next decade. The aim is to raise awareness and encourage investment into full assessment of these issues now, to drive policy change before the issues have a major impact on biodiversity. Their latest report is published in a recent issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution.

“Marine and coastal ecosystems face a wide range of emerging issues that are poorly recognized or understood, each having the potential to impact biodiversity,” says James Herbert-Read of the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, U.K., and joint first author of the paper. “By highlighting future issues, we’re pointing to where changes must be made today — both in monitoring and policy — to protect our marine and coastal environments,” he adds.

Of particular relevance to the chemical industry is the section concerning the effects of biodegradable materials in the marine environment. While consumer pressure is prompting the replacement of some fossil-fuel-based plastics with biodegradable polymers, the report’s authors stress rigorous toxicity testing or lifecycle assessments of biodegradables is needed.

“Materials such as polybutylene succinate, polylactic acid, or cellulose and starch-based materials may become marine litter and cause harmful effects akin to conventional plastics. The long-term and large-scale effect of the use of biodegradable polymers in products (e.g., clothing) and the unintended release of byproducts, such as microfibers, into the environment remain unknown. However, some natural microfibers have greater toxicity than plastic microfibers when consumed by aquatic invertebrates,” the authors note.

They urge jurisdictions to enact and enforce suitable regulations to require individual assessment of all new materials intended to biodegrade in a full range of marine environmental conditions. In addition, testing should include studies on the toxicity of major transition chemicals created during the breakdown process, ideally considering the different trophic levels of marine food webs.

“Governments are making a push for the use of biodegradable materials — but we don’t know what impacts these materials may have on ocean life,” Herbert-Read emphasizes.

Another issue raised is resource exploitation. Here, the report points to pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, nutraceuticals and biomedical industries’ efforts to find new sources of collagen for use in their products. Religious issues and potential disease transmission hazards from traditional bovine and porcine sources is focusing attention on alternatives such as marine organisms discarded by fisheries. However, the report notes that this could discourage the industry’s efforts to reduce the capture of non-target species. More sustainable could be jellyfish harvesting and waste products from the fish processing industry including skin, bones and trims.

Then there is lithium, demand for which is expected to increase five-fold by 2030. As well as battery manufacturers, biomedical applications including pharmaceuticals, industrial agents, and biomaterials are all clambering for new supplies. One potential source is deep-sea brines and cold seeps, using solid-state electrolyte membranes to enrich the element’s concentration. However, these deep-sea ecosystems and potential sources of novel marine genetic resources that could be used by the same industries are little understood. “These concerns point to the need to better quantify and monitor biodiversity in these extreme environments to establish baselines and aid management,” the authors write.

Trace element contamination is another issue and one likely to be compounded by the transition to green technologies. Electric car batteries currently depend almost exclusively on lithium-ion chemistries, with potential trace element emissions spanning their lifecycle from raw material extraction to recycling or end-of-life disposal. The report notes, “Increasing pollution from battery production, recycling, and disposal in the next decade could substantially increase the potentially toxic trace element contamination in marine and coastal systems worldwide.”

This horizon scanning process has previously been used by Cambridge researchers to identify issues that later came to prominence; a scan in 2009 gave an early warning that microplastics could become a major problem in marine environments.

Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's editor at large. You can email him at [email protected].

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