Microplastics – what’s the risk to land, our food, and our health?

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We have been rightly focused on the risks to water from plastics and microplastics, especially rivers, costs and open seas.  The fragments seen so vividly in the stomachs of seabirds and fish in A Plastic Ocean show that they present a real hazard to biodiversity, and the food chain, ultimately leading to us!

We know that some plastic fragments come from as personal care products – microbeads in facial cleansers, toothpaste and even bubble bath. These so-called primary microplastics enter the environment at that size, and particularly through the return of water from wastewater treatment processes, our communities’ sewage works.

But, what’s becoming more clear is that many of the fragments found within sewage works also end up in the solid waste that’s produced from the treatment process – the sludge.  Sludge is turned into an agricultural soil improver product suitable for certain crops such as cereals. The the sludge is dried and pasteurised to kill any pathogenic bacteria, and is then spread onto farm land. The microplastics fragments are being spread too.

In this weeks BBC programme, Countryfile (BBC1, 1830 hours, Sunday 21st May, UK; BBC World see separate time zone programming), Plastic Oceans-funded research fellow at Brunel University London, Dr Chris Green, shows reporter Tom Heap how he has identified microfibres in biosolids that are spread onto agricultural farmland.  The programme explores the uncertainty about how much plastic we have already placed in the environment, and in a form where we really cant get at it.

Recent research published by Imogen Napper of Plymouth University, UK, showed that in a 6 kilo wash of acryilic clothing, the wash released over 700,000 microfibres. Imagine how many fibres are released from our washing machines across the globe – and where do those fibres end up – in our environment.

This poses a lot of important questions about what effect the fibres have on the soil ecology, and normal functioning of soil organisms such as earthworms. How long are the fibres going to be there and what are the toxic chemical implications for our food? What is the risk, and how do we stop it?

Jo Ruxton, UK CEO of the Plastic Oceans Foundationsays this needs to stop now: “The presence of so many microfibres in the biosolids sample is both shocking and sadly not surprising.

“Prevention is always better than cure, so the Plastic Oceans Foundation is working to stop this plastic being released into the environment wherever possible, right back to the source of the pollution.

“We’re asking washing machines manufacturers to prevent microfibres being washed away into our rivers, and synthetic clothing manufacturers need to improve their fabrics. Ultimately, we aim to influence business and governments on the actions they need to take to protect the environment.

“But as long as microfibres are released into the environment, we need better understanding of the effect they have – hence our invaluable working relationship with Brunel.”

Whilst stopping the release of microfibers needs to happen alongside the bans on microbeads in personal care products, the Water industries across the world also need to look to the waste they take from us as consumers, and develop better fixed to prevent plastics getting into our fragile environment.

Napper IE and Thompson RC,

Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. Mar Pollut Bull. 2016 Nov 15;112(1-2):39-45.