Microplastics Pollution Found in Farm Soil

Image: Oregon State University/Flickr

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

There is “a growing concern” over microplastics pollution in farm soils, Kate S. Petersen reported for Environmental Health News this week. Although we have long since known about the effects of microplastics in the ocean, this article showed that “most microplastics are actually accumulating on land, including agricultural areas.”

Indeed, according to an article in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, “107,000 to 730,000 tons of microplastics could be dumped onto agricultural soils in the U.S. and Europe every year, compared to the 93,000 to 236,000 tons that enter the oceans.”

Why This Matters: Microplastics, as Petersen noted, change the properties of soils, both in a physical and biological sense. As Mary Beth Kirkham, a plant physiologist and distinguished professor of agronomy noted that in her experiments, “The particulate plastic appeared to clog the soil pores, prevent aeration of the soil, and cause…the roots to die.” Although we don’t know the “full impact of microplastics contamination in agricultural soils,” burgeoning research suggests that microplastics can pass through plant— and, when ingested by people potentially impacting our immune systems.

Indeed, microplastic particle buildups are “now discoverable” in human organs, where we don’t fully understand the implications on human health.

Moving Microplastics: How are microplastics getting into our soil in the first place? The answer has many layers.

As Petersen said, a 2017 report estimates that “8,000 metric tons of plastic from slow-release fertilizers are broadcast onto Western European agricultural soils annually.”

Another cause for concern is that previous research by German scientists indicated that microplastics could be affecting the soil bacteria that’s critical for soil health, thought researchers indicated that further study is needed.

Banning the Beads: There are some places that are moving forward in limiting microplastics and microbeads. In particular, the EU said next year they would “seek a ban following a proposal from EU agency the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to prevent the addition of microplastics to certain products sold in Europe,” as Euractiv reported.

However, many advocates are criticizing the proposed ban. At first, the ECHA wanted to prohibit microplastics  of a “minimum size of 1 nanometre (nm) for particles and 3 nm for fibres.” But now, after “input” from industry, they have walked back on this proposal, increasing the minimum particle size 100 times.

While ECHA claimed that was to make sure the restriction “could be enforced,” the European Environmental Bureau noted that this “gives manufacturers a perverse incentive to switch production from micro to nano plastic, which may be more harmful to human and animal health because it can more easily get inside and harm living cells.”

We’ve also seen from the Obama-era Microbead-Free Waters Act in the United States, that bans which focus on eliminating plastic microbeads from a single industry are too narrow and allow other manufacturers to keep using them in myriad other consumer products.

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