10 years ago, the public conversation on microplastics was focussed almost entirely on microbeads in exfoliant scrubs, toothpastes and makeup. There was a collective sense of despair at the absurdity that plastics were being intentionally being added to products that were then rinsed down drains and into waterways.

The media has been a lot quieter on the microbead front recently, and attention has turned to microplastics in the broader sense, such as fibres from clothes washing, and fragments from the erosion of plastic products. Despite the rising awareness of microplastics, microbeads were never banned, nor were other microplastics intentionally added to products which are released into the environment, such as polymer coated seeds and slow release fertilisers.

This, however, is changing with new EU legislation passed this week restricting intentionally added microplastics. Member states voted in favour of the Commission’s proposed bill to better control the use of microplastics, to lower their risk to the environment. The legislation, previously hit by delays, will target the 42,000 tonnes of microplastics intentionally put into products which ultimately end up in the environment annually. So, what does this mean for agriculture?

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Photo credit: Canva

There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating that plastics are now ubiquitous across the biosphere, with micro-plastics now detectable in even the remotest of environments. Micro-plastics are present in deep oceans, polar ice-caps, and agricultural soils across the world, whilst nano-plastics have even been found in the tissues and fruits of food-crops. Micro-plastics (plastic pieces under 5 millimetres (mm) in size), and nano-plastics (plastic particles under 1 micrometre (μm)) are pervasive globally. These micro- and nano-plastics are the result of the breakdown and shedding of plastic objects including machinery, vehicles and synthetic fabrics, or intentionally created and added to products such as paints, cosmetics and toothpastes.

Microplastics are inside us.

Research has found that micro-plastics, including nano-plastics, are routinely inhaled in dust in homes, workplaces and the wider environment, and ingested in our food and drink. Plastics have been found in shellfish, crop plant and animal tissues, and are known to migrate up the food chain. Micro-plastics have now been found in the urine, blood, placentas, and deep in the lung tissue of living people. Studies in mice have demonstrated that exposure to micro-plastics can cause them to accumulate in living tissues.

These new and potentially alarming findings lead to urgent questions around what, if any, the impacts on human health might be.

This video, filmed by Marina Pintar whilst on holiday in Croatia, shows an ant colony carrying plastic debris across an agricultural field. MINAGRIS will strive to assess the environmental implications of having these plastics present in soils across Europe. Watch this video to find out. 



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Photo credit: Canva

Our UK team has recently finished sampling agricultural fields for plastics large and small as part of the MINAGRIS project. During this time, it has become increasingly clear that we have a compost problem.

Municipal compost is made with our kitchen countertop and garden green waste collections. When it first arrived at scale as an option for farmers to apply this valuable source of organic matter to their fields and boost their soil carbon, it seemed like a win-win. It had the potential to bring otherwise wasted nutrients back into the food system, saving them from stinking out our bins before ending up in landfill or an incinerator. This was a bold shift towards a more circular economy, which had the potential to be great for soils and farm profitability.

The problem is the high plastic content. Farmers and growers initially eager to make use of this black gold to improve their soil health quickly realised that the plastic content of municipal compost was so high that they were no longer happy putting it on their land. This came up repeatedly in our farmer interviews and whilst we were sampling. Our initial enquiries indicate that this seems to be a widespread understanding within the farming and market gardening communities, not just in the UK but Europe-wide.

 MINAGRIS, over the next 5 years, will explore the impacts of plastic debris on agricultural soil health. This blog explains what plastics are, the extent to which they are used in agriculture across Europe, and the potential environmental health threats posed by plastic debris in soil.

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Photo credits: Plastics Europe, Wageningen Food & Biobased research, Tuinadvies, Kalliergeia, Future Farming, Teal Agrotechnologies

What are plastics?

Plastics consist of one or more polymer types. Polymers are chains of molecules, usually containing carbon. These polymers can be fossil-based or biobased. Fossil-based plastics are typically made from petroleum, whilst biobased plastics are made entirely, or partially, from renewable plant-based products including vegetable oils, corn starch, and even sawdust. You can learn more about biobased plastics via the European bioplastics website and this booklet.

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 Picture source: European bioplastics  

 Plastic mulches are used to control weeds, for temperature control,

and to prevent moisture loss (picture credit: MINAGRIS project)