Plastic Mulch Films

Plastic mulch is generally 0.75-1.25 mils thick, 4-6 feet wide, in rolls 1,000-4,000 feet long. Selecting the right mulch and installing it properly is essential for maximizing its benefits. Plastic mulches are avilable in several colors, but black is the most widely used, especially in temperate climates. The color of plastic mulch affects soil temperature and weed suppression due to their distinct properties, and they vary in price.

Table 14: Plastic Mulch Types and Characteristics

Mulch Color Soil Temperature Change Weed Control Price Key Properties
Black +3-5°F Good $
  • Most widely used
  • Warms soils due to light absorption and suppresses weeds by blocking sunlight
  • Ideal for warm-season crops
  • May overheat roots in summer if used in heat-sensitive crops
Clear +8-14°F Poor $
  • Creates a mini greenhosue under the mulch
  • Herbicide may be warranted as weeds may germinate, grow, and tear the mulch
White-on-black -2°F Good $$
  • Used for fall crops when soil is warm during the early crop stage and black plastic mulch may overheat the roots
Silver/metallic -2°F Good $$
  • Disorients pests such as aphids and thrips in onion and pepper
  • Encourages early fruit ripening by reflecting light to the canopy
Infrared Transmitting +4-6°F Good $$
  • Absorbs specific wavelengths but transmits heat (infrared) radiation to the soil
  • Heats soil like clear mulch but reduces weed germination

Sometimes red, blue, green, and yellow mulches are used as they produce distinct radiation that reflects into the crop canopy. However, research has shown inconsistent results from colored mulches, and they are not widely used in commercial production except for green mulches in California strawberry production.

Apply plastic mulch after fields have been leveled and smoothed and fertilizer has been applied, and when there is good soil moisture (at or near field capacity, which is the amount of moisture left after a rain or irrigation event after surplus water has moved out of the root zone by gravity). In the case of black mulch, good uniform soil contact is essential as the soil is warmed by heat conduction. Commercially, the simplest way to apply mulch film is with a mechanical mulch layer. Plastic mulch can be laid flat against the ground or on raised beds. Raised beds offer additional soil drainage and early warming. Hand application is an option, but applying more than a half-acre can be difficult and time consuming.

Generally, plastic mulch is laid in the spring as soon as the land can be prepared. However, some spring seasons are wet and can delay normal land preparation and planting activities. An alternative is to lay plastic in the fall. Fall mulch application will require similar land preparation as in the spring, but use of a cover crop between the rows is recommended to prevent soil erosion. Oats will winter kill, but winter rye will need to be terminated by using an herbicide (such as Roundup or Gramoxone), or by mowing and cultivation.

After harvest, traditional plastic mulches (made from polyethylene) should be removed from the field and disposed of properly according to local ordinances on incineration and landfills. Alternatives to minimize disposal challenges of used PE are biodegradable mulch films and recycling programs to alleviate landfill accumulations. Recycling is very difficult to implement because mulches are dirty after field use, recycling facilities are limited, and it can be challenging to transport used plastic to recycling facilities. Soil and plant debris adhere to the mulch, adding up to 70% by weight and the presence of soil can abrade the recycling equipment. Research is ongoing to assess the potential for recycling plastic into higher-value products through pyrolysis and other chemical recycling methods that can accept some level of soil and debris in the used plastics.

Biodegradable Plastic Mulch

Degradable plastic mulch has been in development for decades. Some of the first commercialized products were photodegradable, and would break down when exposed to light. Many growers who used these products reported uneven and incomplete breakdown, particularly after tillage buried the plastic fragments at the end of the season. However, degradable mulches prepared from biodegradable polymers now exist. They are designed to be tilled into the soil after their service life, after which they will undergo aerobic biodegradation by soil microorganisms, producing CO2, water, and microbial biomass.

The most widely available and studied biodegradable polymer is Mater-Bi, made in Italy by Novamont. Some mulches that use this polymer are Bio360 (Dubois Agrinovations) and BioAgri (BioBag Americas). Mater-Bi is made primarily from starches, vegetable oils plus proprietary biodegradable organic co-polyesters derived from renewable, synthetic, or mixed sources. While Bio360 mulch is approved for use on European organic farms, at this time no biodegradable plastic mulch is approved for use on USDA-certified organic farms. This is because currently available biodegradable plastic mulches have a maximum 50% biobased content while one of the requirements of National Organic Program is that the mulch must be completely biobased. Further, most commercially available biodegradable plastic mulches are produced with chemicals derived by fermentation. In this process, genetically modified yeast and bacteria are used for increased productivity. GMO processes are not allowed in US organic agriculture. US organic regulations do allow the use of synthetic (polyethene) mulches, but they must be removed from the soil at the end of the growing season.

Biodegradable plastic mulches performed comparably to polyethylene mulch in controlling weeds, raising soil temperatures and increasing crop yields despite some breakdown of biodegradable mulch during the growing season. Biodegradable mulch does not have a significant impact on soil quality. Research at Washington State University modeled five years of mulch degradation data from a field study and predicted the timeframe of 21 to 58 months for 90% degradation of biodegradable plastic mulch after tillage. As biodegradable mulch starts to degrade during the growing season, mulch adhesion to fruit surface can be an issue for heavy-fruited crops like pumpkin and watermelon, where fruits rest on the mulch for extended period. Up-to-date information can be accessed at the Washington State University Small Fruit Horticulture Research & Extension Program's Plastic Mulches page, https://smallfruits.wsu.edu/plastic-mulches/.

Biodegradable mulches initially cost about two times more than standard black plastic, but end-of-season labor and disposal costs are avoided. The mulch is thinner (it comes in 0.5-0.8 mil thicknesses) than typical black polyethylene (1-1.25 mil), and when starting to lay the plastic, extra care is required to prevent tears. When laying mulch, do not stretch as tightly as you normally would with black plastic. Applying in early morning when temperatures are cooler can help. The mulch starts to break down more quickly when stretched. Apply right before planting because the mulch will start to break down as soon as it makes soil contact. Buy what you need each year – do not try to store biodegradable mulch. The mulch can start to break down in storage, particularly if storage conditions are moist and/or warm. Store the mulch upright, on ends of rolls. The mulch can start to degrade or stick together under pressure of its own weight. Biodegradable plastic mulches undergo degradation even under ideal storage conditions and may perform best if deployed within 2 years of their receipt date.

WeedGuardPlus (Sunshine Paper Co.) is a brown paper mulch with soil-cooling properties. It is OMRI listed and is effective under low rainfall and low wind conditions. WeedGuardPlus is also effective in controlling nutsedge unlike polyethylene and biodegradable plastic mulches. However, it is more expensive than biodegradable plastic mulch. 

Before purchasing, users should verify that the biodegradable mulch product meets biodegradable mulch standards. Some relevant standards include EN 17033, ASTM D6400, ASTM D5338, and TUV-Austria OK Biodegradable Soil.