Plastic use in agriculture must be reduced in order to mitigate pollution and prevent toxic chemicals from leaching into the soil and adversely affecting human health, according to a recently published study.

“Emerging data on leaching of toxic additives and tiny fragments from plastics called micro-nanoplastics into the water, ground, and air show impact on human health,” says Philip Demokritou, Henry Rutgers Chair and Professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable and persist in the environment, with residues accumulating in the soil and can also be taken up by plants as they break into tiny plastic particles and enter our food chain via trophic transfer.”

In an article published in Nature Communications Earth & Environment, Demokritou outlines the benefits and risks of using plastics in agriculture and identifies sustainable solutions that can be used to protect the environment and safeguard public health.

He and an international team of authors found that it is essential to adopt a strategic approach that includes responsible usage, reduction, efficient collection, reuse and the implementation of innovative recycling methods, which are vital in mitigating plastic pollution stemming from plastic use in agriculture.

Demokritou said researchers suggest more sustainable approaches to using plastics in agriculture, like collecting, reusing and recycling plastics. When it is not possible to take this approach, “biodegradable and nontoxic bioplastics rather than petroleum-based plastics should be used to ensure complete biodegradation.”

While plastics play a crucial role in modern agricultural practices, serving various functions such as mulch films, nets, storage bins, and helping to increase the amount of food that is produced while decreasing the ecological resources used by controlling weeds and pests, preserving soil moisture, regulating temperature and improving nutrient uptake and plant growth, their extensive use has led to significant waste. The consequences on human and environmental health are also poorly understood.

Environmentally benign additives should be mandated to reduce toxicity, researchers insist. More than 10,000 chemicals are used to produce plastics, many of which have been outlawed because of their impact on human and environmental health. Demokritou says a shift towards the sustainable use of plastics will require that these materials are safe and also information regarding the chemicals used is accessible.

The researchers also say sustainable innovation must be linked to social processes. To reduce plastic pollution, farmer’s behavior, as well as availability of materials, production practices, and various constrains need to be considered.

Regulatory frameworks and incentives may be helpful. Scientists, members of the government, non-governmental organizations, and stakeholders agree that plastic pollution is problematic and needs to be addressed.

“To attain a greater level of sustainability in the utilization of plastics within the realm of plant agriculture, it will be essential to make informed decisions grounded in scientific knowledge and rooted in the principles of a circular economy. This entails fostering innovations in material design, enhancing the collectability of plastics post-use, promoting their reuse and recycling, and implementing shifts in usage practices,” concluded Demokritou.

Currently, Demokritou and his team are funded by United States Department of Agriculture to assess the impact of micro-nanoplastics on plants and human health.

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