2/5/15 Update on biodegradable mulches for organic growers


Laying ‘BioTelo’ mulch

Biodegradable mulches (such as the brands BioTelo or Bio360, which contain the material ‘MaterBi’) are now being used by many growers in place of standard black plastic mulches – but not by organic growers. Thus far, none of these mulches have been allowed in certified organic production, unless they are removed at the end of the growing season. It sounds as though this is going to remain the case, for now – read on for more details.

The following note was written by Eric Sideman, Crops Specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners’ Association (MOFGA), who has given permission to have this reprinted here.

Biodegradable Mulch Update

There has been an important development in the status of biodegradable mulch. It is very, very unlikely that any brands will be allowed in organic production this coming growing season. I am disturbing the quiet of your midwinter because I know many growers are ordering supplies now and I wanted to give warning before anyone ordered a product that would not be allowed.

Background and Recent Development

In the Federal Register of September 30, 2014, the National Organic Program (NOP) published a rule that added an allowance for the use of biodegradable, biobased mulch films to the USDA regulations for organic crop production (NOP Rule change). As many of you know, this change does not mean that all biodegradable mulch films are now allowed. What it does mean is now individual brands may apply for review for compliance with the criteria outlined in the rule change. Some manufactures began the process, and in doing so it came to light that none of these actually met the criteria.

The criteria included in the NOP rule are those recommended by the NOSB in response to the petition to add biodegradable mulches to the list of permitted synthetics. According to this final rule, such mulches must meet certain criteria for compostability, biodegradation, and biobased content, all according to specific ASTM International standards, in order to comply with the organic regulations. The sticking point that will make it unlikely that any mulches actually get approved in time for this growing season is that for being “biobased”. The ASTM test methods for biobased content (ASTM D6866) yield a percentage result, but do not specify a standard for biobased content, nor did the new rule set a standard. In response to inquiries about this, the NOP recently released Policy Memo 15-1, which clarifies that all feedstocks (resins) used to make the mulch films must be biobased, and that non-biobased feedstocks from synthetic polymers such as petrochemical resins are prohibited in organic production.

Based on OMRI’s research and understanding of these products, most and possibly all, of the currently marketed biobased mulch films contain some petrochemical feedstocks, and the feedstocks are typically less than 50% biobased. OMRI says that it is unlikely that they will be able to add any biodegradable, biobased mulch films to the OMRI Products List© this year.

We at MOFGA do not know the feasibility or timeframe in which mulch film manufacturers may develop new formulas that comply with the NOP policy for biobased content, nor if they plan to file a petition to have the criteria changed. But, at this time it seems as if the ball is back in their court.

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