Across the globe, there is a bioeconomy beginning to mature. For example, approximately 15 million hectares of agricultural land are covered every year with horticultural plastics. Every year, in labor intensive and expensive efforts, all of these plastic covers must be removed after the growing season is over. The land must be cleaned, plowed and prepared for the coming cycle, and the plastic will jam the equipment if any is left in the fields. Not only is the use of petroleum-based plastic ecologically unsustainable, it is economically unsustainable as well. This is a bioeconomy market that is ripe and ready for picking.
Alternatives to the plastic cover have been under development for several years, but it is only now that a new paper-based biodegradable cover is entering the market. Suitable for both commercial and subsistence farms, the new cover is jointly developed by MTT Agrifood Research Finland and Stora Enso Research Center. This newly developed biodegradable cover is manufactured from renewable materials and was introduced into practical farming in the summer of 2014.
Biodegradable Paper Covers Open Up A New Bioeconomy Market For Horticulture
Reflecting Finland’s bioeconomic goals, the development of this cover and its introduction into practical farming is one of the first concrete steps towards a society based on the bioeconomy. This project is underpinned by research and cross-enterprise collaboration dating back several years in which MTT has been steadily engaged.
By itself, paper is not durable enough for use as a horticultural material. However, the decomposition time of the paper cover is extended when it is treated with a distillation obtained from the birch tree. Using this biodegradable cover material improves the soil’s water economy, reduces weed growth, and is superior to plastics in its ability to facilitate plant gas metabolism.
The biodegradable paper cover has given its best performance in tunnel cultivation and when used in combination with horticultural gauze and insect nets. “Using this cover, domestic products can be produced for consumers using less or even no pesticides. This material is also highly suitable for organic horticulture,” says MTT Professor Kari Tiilikkala.
An Environmentally Friendly Production Method
Farmer and commercial horticulturist Esko Holma from Salo has participated in the development of several different bio-cover materials. He has used these materials over the past two years, and this summer his cucumbers are growing on top of a cover. As a farmer, he says, he sees the importance of an environmentally friendly production method based on the bioeconomy.
“A plastic cover sheet, stained with soil, cannot be recycled; it will end up in a landfill, ultimately finding its way to waterways and the nutrient circulation cycle. Plastics simply have no future. Bio-covers, by contrast, will be needed, growing in importance as pesticides are being removed from the market,” says Holma.
From an environmental point of view, this product has significant potential, as the material is based on renewable wood fiber. It is designed to last the entire growing season, with no need to remove it from the field at the end of the year. Commercial growers are reporting positive experiences, and the paper industry sees huge potential for this new biodegradable product with an emerging global bioeconomy market. Although it doesn’t need removing, new covers must be purchased every year.
Bioeconomy Solutions Through Global Collaboration
The development of cover materials for various perennial berry-producing plants and different soils continues in Finland and Egypt, where MTT has gained research experience on the management of water economy of dry soil and other similar projects.
“We develop bio-economic solutions in collaboration with various enterprises,” says Anu Harkki, MTT’s Research Director. “The innovations we develop will not be left collecting dust in cupboards. Our aim is that development and productization will be carried out in a market-driven fashion from the very beginning.”