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?

It is estimated that 31,000 – 43,000 tonnes of microplastics are applied to European soils in sewage sludge annually, making EU farmland a significant global reservoir of microplastics. Sewage sludge contains the microplastic contents of exfoliant scrubs, toothpastes, cleaning products, laundry detergents and cosmetics filtered from wastewater after they go down our sink and shower drains. After the permitted transition periods, the bill is likely to reduce the load of microplastics in soils from applications like sewage sludge, although the amount of unintentional plastics in sludge from washing synthetic clothing will remain unaffected by the bill.

Some microplastics are intentionally added directly to soils. Polymer coatings are used on seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. They help bind fertilisers and pesticides to seeds, standardise seed sizes for machine sowing, control how damp the seed is, and make synthetic fertilisers slower release. Amongst EU farmers, there is evidence to suggest that there is limited awareness that many of these coatings are plastic based.

Once spread on fields, these plastic polymer coatings break down into increasingly smaller fragments in the soil. These micro- and nano-plastics then typically remain there, or are taken up into food crops, or get washed into waterways which flow out to lakes and seas. Industry representatives report preparing for the ban on microplastics to come into action for seed coatings by January 2028, and for pelleted pesticide products by January 2031, and there is currently a race to develop biodegradable alternatives. However, 6 of the 10 leading players in the global seed coatings market are based in Europe, there is no suggestion that this legislation will prevent the export of plastic coated products worldwide.

Overall, the new legislation is an important first step towards reducing the load of microplastics in agricultural soils and waterways, by removing those that are intentionally added. However, as it will not impact unintentional microplastics, such as the microfibres produced by washing synthetic clothing and captured in sewage sludge, there remains much work to be done.

Within MINAGRIS, we have been working to identify the types and amounts of plastics in agricultural soils across Europe, and their impact on the environment. We will have results out soon. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and sign up for our newsletter to be the first to hear about our findings.