Piling plastics in soil affect soil, human health – UNEP warns

A pile of plastic bottles pushed by the water of Bigajuka River in Hoima City in 2020.

A new report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says plastics used in farming activities are accumulating in agricultural soil worldwide at an alarming rate impacting negatively on both soil and human health.

Professor Elaine Baker from the University of Sydney, a co-author of the report says they are concerned that while all these products have helped increase crop yields, there is growing evidence that degraded plastics are contaminating the soil and impacting biodiversity and soil health.

Ms Baker explains that over time, big pieces of plastic can break into shards less than 5 mm long and seep into the soil adding that these synthetic materials are also added intentionally to bio-solid fertilizer which is spread on fields and are used in sacks, bottles and irrigation tubes.

“We are starting to understand that the build-up of plastic can have wide-ranging impacts on soil health, biodiversity and productivity, all of which are vital for food security,” she said.

UNEP experts further explain that these micro plastics can change the physical structure of the earth underfoot and limit its capacity to hold water besides affecting plants by reducing root growth and nutrient uptake.

They say currently, the single-biggest source of micro-plastic pollution in soil is fertilizers produced from organic matter such as manure.

Ms Baker said the micro-plastics such as the one used in some fertilizers are also impacting human health when transferred to people through the food chain.

She said although these can be cheaper and better for the environment that manufactured fertilizers, the manure is mixed with the same plastic microspheres that are known to be commonly used in certain soaps, shampoos and makeup products.

The environmental expert added that while some countries have banned these microspheres, other micro-plastics continue to enter water systems through discarded cigarette filters, tyre components and synthetic clothing fibres.

Ms Baker recommends governments to disincentivise the use of agricultural plastics following the path of the European Union which earlier this year restricted certain types of polymers from being used in fertilizer.

“Now is the time to adopt the precautionary principle and develop targeted solutions for stopping the flow of plastic from the source and into the environment,” the Australian scientist underscored.

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