Article image

The alarming impact of plastics used in modern agricultural practices

A new study from Rutgers University has sounded the alarm on the extensive use of plastics in agriculture and its potential threats to both environmental and human health. 

The study, recently published in the journal Nature Communications, highlights the urgent need to reduce plastic use in agriculture. 

Persistent problem

“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,” said Professor Philip Demokritou. 

“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.”

Indispensable role of plastics

It is essential to recognize the indispensable role plastics have played in modern agricultural practices. They serve myriad functions – from acting as mulch films and nets to being used as storage bins. 

The contribution of plastics to food production, weed and pest control, soil moisture preservation, temperature regulation, and enhancing nutrient uptake and plant growth cannot be overlooked.  

Chain of consequences

Yet, this widespread utility has its downsides, leading to significant waste and triggering a chain of consequences – with impacts on human and environmental health that are not fully understood.

A concerning revelation is the sheer number of chemicals used in producing plastics. Professor Demokritou pointed out that more than 10,000 chemicals are employed for this purpose, with many having been banned due to their hazardous implications on health and the environment. 

Need for safe alternatives

The researchers strongly advocate for the use of environmentally additives to curb toxicity. For a truly sustainable shift, Professor Demokritou emphasized that not only should these materials be safe, but there should also be transparency regarding the chemicals used in their production.

How to keep plastics out of agriculture

According to the researchers, a multifaceted approach is needed to tackle the issue. They propose strategic measures, including responsible usage, efficient collection, reuse, and the promotion of innovative recycling methods to mitigate the fallout from agricultural plastic usage. 

If these aren’t viable, the researchers advocate for the employment of “biodegradable and nontoxic bioplastics” as an alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Bioplastics would ensure complete biodegradation, eliminating the persistent pollution threat.

Attaining sustainability 

The study authors emphasize the significance of combining sustainable innovation with social processes. Factors like farmer behavior, materials availability, production practices, and existing constraints need to be part of the equation to truly make a difference. 

“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,” said Professor Demokritou.

“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.”

In a continued effort to shed light on this concern, Demokritou’s team has secured funding from the United States Department of Agriculture. Their goal is to assess the far-reaching impact of micro-nanoplastics on both plants and human health. 

Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day