Scientists and farmers join forces to tackle microplastics

Staffordshire University scientists spearheading research into microplastic pollution have joined forces with West Midlands’ farmers.

University researchers held talks with the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and its members to explore how plastic pollution is impacting on the farming industry and what can be done to tackle the issue.

Much is known about marine plastic pollution but there is little information about the impact of plastics in the soil; Staffordshire University scientists are driving research in this area.

During the meeting, held this month, the group discussed how microplastics (pieces less than five millimetres long) get into the environment.

The farmers and growers heard this was from wider commercial manufacturing, shedding from synthetic clothing, cigarette filters, car and truck tyres, treated sewage waste which is sometimes used as a fertiliser, and a host of other sources including the physical breakdown of plastic litter.

Claire Gwinnett, Professor of Forensic and Environmental Science, explained: “We want to share what knowledge we do have and hear from farmers working on the ground. Farmers can help make changes so it is really important to understand what is actually happening in the industry and what issues they are concerned about.

“I was delighted to welcome the NFU to the university and we hope to develop this relationship as the research work continues.”

Sarah Faulkner, NFU West Midlands environment and rural affairs adviser, helped organise discussions in the Science Centre at the University’s Stoke campus.

Mrs Faulkner said: “I think it is really interesting as a first step to see what our farmers make of this issue, however; we need to see much more research in this area as there are many unknowns.

“We are innovative and pioneering when it comes to food production and environmental protection and the industry is science-led, so we look forward to seeing and hearing more from the Staffordshire University team and of course we will help where we can.

“There is currently a lot of change in agriculture and horticulture and policy is changing so we are very interested in getting ahead of what the emerging issues are. We need a sound, science-based understanding of the potential impacts of soil microplastics and we need to avoid knee-jerk reactions at all costs.”

Plastics play an important role in farming to increase crop production and reduce water consumption but currently only 35% of agricultural plastics are recycled due to limited recycling options.

Ellie Harrison, who is completing a PhD in Microplastics in Agricultural Environments at Staffordshire University, specialises in crop development and is researching whether microplastics affect germination and invertebrates living in the soil.

“There are many benefits of using plastics but we need to understand their impact,” she said.

“Microplastics can affect soil stability and the growth and development of plants. Biodegradable alternatives can have equally negative effects so it is important to explore all options before any changes can be made.

“If we want to push sustainability in farming then we need to have a sound understanding of the impact of microplastics, it is also important to educate and look at how to fill the gaps in our knowledge before looking for future solutions together.”

The farmers discussed the potential sources of microplastics on their land with her and offered to donate soil samples for analysis. Professor Gwinnett also led the farmers on a tour of the University’s state-of-the-art laboratories and discussed some of the department’s other work with the group.

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About The Author

John Swire - Deputy editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.