BioPlastEffect: Bioplastics decomposition and effects on freshwater ecosystems under global change threats

Berta Bonet is a researcher in aquatic ecology and ecotoxicology. She received her PhD in experimental sciences and sustainability at the University of Girona (2013) thanks to a scholarship from the Spanish Ministry. After her PhD, she combined teaching and research. She worked at Eawag (Switzerland) with silver nanoparticles and biofilm. She obtained and carried out her first independent Marie Curie fellowship (2017-2019), which allowed her to start her line of research at the University of Birmingham (UK), combining aquatic ecotoxicology and global change effects until July 2021.

She has worked extensively on the impacts of human activities and global change on freshwater ecosystems, focusing especially on the influence of processes occurring at the microbial scale, using microbial communities as bioindicators. In 2022, she obtained a second independent Marie Curie fellowship which she gave up to become, since May 2023, Principal Investigator of her own project on the effects and decomposition of bioplastics in freshwater ecosystems under conditions of global change as a ComFuturo fellow at the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Blanes (CEAB, CSIC), for the development of her project BioPlastEffect.

Los plásticos están muy presentes en nuestra vida diaria, pero su alta persistencia y degradación en microplásticos los convierte en una gran amenaza ambiental. Alternativamente, se han desarrollado los bioplásticos, biodegradables por microoganismos o producidos a partir de biomasa, aunque aún se desconoce el impacto que su mayor uso puede causar en el medio. El proyecto BioPlastEffect quiere explorar y proporcionar nuevo conocimiento sobre los efectos y la descomposición de los bioplásticos en los ecosistemas de agua dulce en las condiciones de cambio global actuales y futuras. Los resultados servirán para evaluar, predecir y mitigar los efectos de los bioplásticos en los ecosistemas fluviales y en la calidad del agua. Más allá del ámbito científico, proporcionarán información nueva y relevante para la producción y regulación de estos materiales, con el fin último de lograr que se conviertan en una alternativa real a los plásticos convencionales.
Plastics are ubiquitous in our daily lives, but their high persistence and degradation into microplastics make them a major environmental threat. Alternatively, bioplastics, biodegradable by microorganisms or produced from biomass, have been developed, although the impact of their increased use on the environment is still unknown. The BioPlastEffect project aims to explore and provide new knowledge on the effects and decomposition of bioplastics in freshwater ecosystems under current and future global change conditions. The results will be used to assess, predict and mitigate the effects of bioplastics on river ecosystems and water quality. Beyond the scientific scope, they will provide new and relevant information for the production and regulation of these materials, with the ultimate goal of making them a real alternative to conventional plastics.

Extended project summary:

We live in the “plastic age”. Plastics are key to innovation and are used on a daily basis. However, due to their persistence, handling, and improper disposal, plastics tend to accumulate in the environment. Besides, during their life cycle, they degrade into different sizes and the tiny ones, called microplastics (less than 5mm), are considered a major environmental threat. Faced with this problem, other materials have been developed, biodegradable plastics or bioplastics. These materials are biodegradable at the end of their life and/or produced from renewable sources. Thus, bioplastics have become an alternative since they can degrade into water and carbon dioxide under certain environmental conditions. But, are these materials really a good alternative? What effect can we expect in the environment, especially in the aquatic environment, due to its greater use?

In fluvial ecosystems, there are inherent microbial communities that could potentially decompose bioplastics due to their great capacity for recycling and decomposition of nutrients such as carbon. However, it is still unknown how the degradation of bioplastics will affect the carbon and nutrient cycles in aquatic ecosystems and, consequently, the effects it will have on essential ecological services, such as the water purification carried out by these microbial communities. In addition, global change, especially the increase in temperature and the increasingly repeated episodes of extreme hydrological events such as floods and prolonged drought, mobilize plastics in freshwater ecosystems and further degrade them into microplastics. Therefore, there is an urgent need to study and develop tools to assess, predict and mitigate the effects of bioplastics and their effects on river ecosystems and water quality today and in the future.