We often hear about plastic in the ocean.
But, there seems to be far less awareness around plastic pollution on dry land.
We’ve put together an FAQ type guide that discusses some of the potential issues, causes/sources, impacts/effects and solutions to dry land plastic pollution.
Summary – Plastic Pollution On Land
- Is appears there is far less research that has been done, and far less certainty about the full effects of plastic pollution on dry land (also called terrestrial plastic pollution) compared to plastic pollution in the ocean
- But, there is a possibility that the full impact of plastic pollution on dry land could be as bad, or even worse than the impact in oceans
- One of the key issues suspected to be a risk to ecosystems and living things (humans, wildlife etc.) in the future is microplastic (and nanoplastic) in soil, sediments and fresh water sources globally, as well as in the air
- Degradation of plastic and it’s effects is another
- Increasing research is being done into the amount of micro and nano plastics entering tap and drinking (bottled) water for humans. The impact of microplastics and nano plastics in the human body right now has limited information available, but, it’s believed the health risk to humans is low or no risk at current levels, according to most sources (euronews.com). Some sources do note though that there is observable and circumstantial evidence for plastic related chemicals (like BPA and phthalates) and certain health issues in humans, and that direct health issues have been proven in lab animals (earthday.org)
- There are several causes and sources for micro and nano plastics getting into soil, sediment, freshwater lakes and rivers, tap water and bottled water
- Going forward, the degradation behaviour of plastic, and the effects of microplastics, require better and more standardized assessment methods if we want a more accurate picture of plastic pollution on dry land, and potential short and long term impacts for humans, wildlife and the environment. The are a range of challenges in studying and researching dry land plastic pollution though, one of which is that is can be very time consuming (which is perhaps one of the reasons we don’t currently have more data and research available on it)
- It’s worth noting, right now, microbially-contaminated drinking-water and faecally-contaminated water [with] microbial pathogens still represent [are] “the most significant public health threat in drinking-water”. [So, we may look at addressing this problem before the microplastics in drinking water problem]. [And, some sources indicate that] filtering water for infectious diseases and other microbes would also solve the problem of microplastics (euronews.com)
What Is Dry Land Plastic Pollution?
Dry land plastic pollution refers to the impact of plastic pollution on the land, as opposed to in the ocean.
It mainly occurs in soil, sediments and freshwater sources.
It is sometimes referred to as terrestrial plastic pollution.
Far less is known about it, and the impact it might have, compared ocean plastic pollution.
Land Plastic Pollution vs Ocean Plastic Pollution
- [it is proposed that microplastic and nanoplastic pollution on dry land] may have damaging [long term] effects similar or even more problematic than in our oceans.
- … terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution — an estimate of four to 23 times more, depending on the environment
What Is The Scale Of Land Plastic Pollution?
- Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year. It is estimated that one third of all plastic waste ends up in soils or freshwaters.
- Most of this plastic breaks down into microplastic smaller than five millimetres, and nanoplastic less than 0.1 micrometre in size
- Research suggests that 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been produced since it was invented, and a shocking 6.3 billion metric tons is now plastic waste. Of this waste, 79 per cent has been buried in landfills or ended up in nature
- … If we continue at the current rate of production without better recycling infrastructure in place, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills by 2050
How Does Plastic Pollution On Land Happen, & Where Does It Comes From? (Causes & Sources)
A range of sources:
- Micro plastics are found in and come from sewage waste (sewage sludge and biosolids used for fertilizer), waste water and storm water, synthetic fibres from textiles and clothing that are washed and discharged to waste water, cosmetic and personal care products, flushing plastic items down the toilet, run off from roads (plastic pellets and additives in asphalt, tyres, road marking), shoe soles, agricultural plastics, and more
- Littered plastic items
- Inadequately disposed of plastic items in low to middle income countries may leak from uncontained or open dumping sites, and get out into the environment
- It’s also possible that landfills with inadequate liners or leachate management systems in high income and developed countries may contribute to plastic pollution, as these plastics may breakdown and contaminate the soil beneath them
- A lack of plastic being recycled, and China’s recent ban on accepting plastic from other countries, may lead to more plastic ending up in landfills, or becoming mismanaged plastic (littered or inadequately disposed of)
- [Sewage helps distribute microplastic on land … as 80 to 90 per cent of the particles contained in sewage persist in the sludge … is then often applied to fields as fertilizer, meaning that several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year. Plastic garment fibres can be found in sewage sludge]
- … several thousand tons of microplastics end up in our soils each year [as a result of sewage sludge and fertilizer]
- [Chlorinated plastic is another source of harmful chemicals that can leach into the environment]
- … clothing [helps plastic get into tap water]. Minuscule fibres of acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester are shed each time we wash our clothes and are carried off to wastewater treatment plants or discharged to the open environment … [and one study estimates] more than 700,000 microscopic plastic fibres could be released into the environment during each cycle of a washing machine. [Another study] found that washing a single synthetic jacket just once released an average of 1.7 grams of microfibres.
- [It’s also been found that microbeads of plastic come from] cosmetics and personal care products containing microbeads
- [other studies on microfibers released during textile washing revealed that] 250 thousand fibers can be released within a single wash.
- [EDCs – endocrine disrupting chemicals – are] thought to be leaked into the environment through the breakdown of plastics in landfills
- … plastic particles are being flushed into our waterways every day – microbeads from toothpaste, fibres from clothes, specks from shoes and cars tyres, even plastic from wastewater treatment plants
- [Microplastics also come from road surface run off, fibres released from textiles, shoe soles and artificial turf, agricultural plastics used for mulching, cosmetics, consumer products flushed down toilets and sinks, nurdles, degraded fishing nets and other fishing equipment, water treatment plant components and pipes, the bottles and caps of bottled water]
- Microplastics enter drinking-water sources from surface run-off after rainfall, wastewater effluent, industrial effluent, litter and wind. “Plastic bottles and caps that are used in bottled water may also be sources of microplastics in drinking water
- Sources of micro plastics and types of microplastics may include …
- plastic fibres that detach from synthetic clothing during washing, and plastic flakes that are created when larger items of plastic packaging waste break down
- Plastic-based items being flushed down the toilet – such as wet wipes and plastic-stemmed cotton buds and sanitary products – can contribute to the problem, as can industrial discharges to sewers, and even tyre fragments and road paint from roads when there is surface water run-off to combined sewers
- [some studies of micro plastic concentrations in rivers] upstream and downstream of wastewater treatment plants… categorised the types of microplastics found into pellets/beads, fibres and fragments/flakes. Fragments and fibres made up nearly 90 per cent of the microplastic found in the river samples.
- the amount of plastic microfibres from clothing and textiles polluting our rivers … may be a major concern
In regards to micro plastic pollution from sewage and waste water streams specifically:
- … UK wastewater treatment plants use tiny plastic pellets, known as Bio-Beads, to filter chemical and organic contaminants from sewage … [and some sources indicate these pellets] have been spilled and ended up in the environment (theguardian.com)
- [there can be issues at waste water plants properly filtering micro plastic fibres. And, even if they can be filtered, the plastic particles end up in the environment via sewage sludge – unless the sludge is incinerated] (guppyfriend.com)
- [sewer overflows also contribute to plastic pollution … [they] relieve the sewage system in rainy conditions. In order to prevent backwater in households in case of heavy rain, the wastewater flows through the sewers untreated … [so] wastewater from the gullies does not take the detour via a wastewater treatment plant, but gets into our water widely unfiltered] (guppyfriend.com)
- … plastic objects [can] make it into the main sewer system … by being flushed down the toilet, or carried by the rain into a street drain (whoi.edu)
- wastewater treatment plants [are one way the micro plastics enter water supplies and sources, but they also enter water supplies and sources upstream of wastewater plants via the sources mentioned above in the wwtonline.co.uk dot points – washing textiles, flushing plastic fibre items, discharge to sewers, road surface water run off and so on] (wwtonline.co.uk)
Microplastic pollution of agricultural lands may be a source of land plastic pollution that needs more awareness and attention:
- Between 107,000-730,000 tonnes of microplastic are added to European and North American farmlands each year
- In 2017, Australia produced 327,000 tonnes of dry biosolids containing microplastics and 75 per cent of it was used in agriculture
- … plastics find their way into agricultural soils through recycled wastewater and rubbish
- [another major source is] organic fertiliser made from treated and dewatered sewage, known as biosolids … [and] Food scraps recycled from our mixed waste bins for compost and plastic products used directly by farmers, such as plastic mulch
- … clothing fibres, tyre debris in stormwater, and microbeads in cleaning products were contaminating wastewater
- … [it is not known] what effect microplastics are having on our agricultural ecosystems
Impact/Effects Of Plastic Pollution On Land On The Environment/EcoSystem, Wildlife & Humans
We’ve already listed some of the potentially harmful effects of plastic pollution in general in this guide. Some of these effects apply to plastic pollution on land.
But, there are also some potential impacts of land based plastic pollution specifically listed below:
- … the surfaces of tiny fragments of plastic may carry disease-causing organisms and act as a vector that transmits diseases in the environment
- The intake and uptake of small microplastics could turn out to be the new long-term stress factor for the environment
- … [but right now] there is a lack of standardized methods for determining microplastics in terrestrial ecosystems in order to produce an accurate assessment of the situation
- Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil, which can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources, and also the ecosystem
- As mentioned above, plastics that break down in landfills without adequate liners and leachate management, may contaminate soil with their leachate. Contaminated soil can lead to contaminated sediment, and contaminated fresh water sources too
- … every year … about 4 million tonnes plastic passes along rivers. In some cases, there can be over half a million plastic fragments per square metre of river bed.
- Humans also ingest microplastics via food: they have already been detected not only in fish and seafood, but also in salt, sugar and beer
- … tiny fragments of plastic can be accumulated in yeasts and filamentous fungi
- Microplastics can even be found in tap water
- It’s estimated the average person already ingests around 2,000 microplastic particles a week – around five grams, or the weight of a credit card.
- [Water can be measured for plastic pollution by measuring plastic particles per litre]
- [Microplastic concentrations vary between rivers and lakes worldwide]
- [Recorded concentrations in bottled water can be far higher than lakes and rivers]
- Although wastewater treatment removes most particles from polluted water, millions still make it through the filters and back into the water supply
- The concentration in drinking water can go up after storm events and heavy rainfall, which wash microplastics into reservoirs, temporarily bypassing wastewater treatment
- Rates also tend to be higher downstream of effluent discharge, and in areas near densely populated urban centres
- [humans ingest microplastics from food and water, and from plastic utensils, and from breathing]
- [potential risks from microplastics in the human body are toxicity of the particles, plastic additives, pollutants that accumulate on the plastic, biofilms, and the spread of pathogens and antimicrobial resistance]
- [right now, it is considered there is insufficient information to make firm conclusions on what plastics do to the human body … but, right now, it’s thought plastics are inert when ingested and pass through our bodies without uptake]
- [there appears to be] no reliable information at this time that would suggest any overt health concerns associated with microplastic particles … and there low concern for human health
- … microplastics larger than 150 micrometres are not likely to be absorbed in the human body and the uptake of smaller particles “is expected to be limited.”
- … levels of particles found in drinking water varied so widely between the different studies that no conclusions could be drawn
- … microbial pathogens still represent “the most significant public health threat in drinking-water” [in the world]
- Recent studies into water contamination have found microplastics in 83% of tap water samples from major cities around the world and in 93% of samples from the world’s top 11 bottled water brands.
- … there is an observable correlation between the presence of plastic substances in the blood (specifically BPA and phthalates) and higher rates of certain health issues. Some of these health issues include chromosomal and reproductive abnormalities, early puberty, childhood obesity, and increased blood pressure. The result of this lack of hard causal evidence is part of the reason there remains no FDA regulation setting a limit of microplastic contamination in bottled water.
- … We have shown that our drinking water supply is heavily contaminated with microplastics. We have shown that those who have been exposed to certain forms of plastic contamination have a higher likelihood of developing certain serious health issues. We have even shown that these plastic chemicals directly cause these health impacts in lab animals. Given all this circumstantial evidence, the lack of proof for direct causation seems to be a pretty week argument for delaying regulation.
Wildlife & Living Organisms
- … earlier studies have demonstrated that microplastics might be harmful to ecosystems when ingested by aquatic key organisms … [and it is thought that there could be a similar impact on land based organisms]
- Microplastics can also interact with soil fauna, affecting their health and soil functions … Earthworms, for example, make their burrows differently when microplastics are present in the soil, affecting the earthworm’s fitness and the soil condition.
- Generally speaking, when plastic particles break down, they gain new physical and chemical properties, increasing the risk that they will have a toxic effect on organisms. And the more likely it is that toxic effects will occur, the larger the number of potentially affected species and ecological functions. Chemical effects are especially problematic at the decomposition stage … [where] additives such as phthalates and Bisphenol A leach out of plastic particles. These additives are known for their hormonal effects and can potentially disrupt the hormone system not only of vertebrates, but also of several invertebrates
- … nano-sized [plastic] particles may cause inflammation; they may traverse or change cellular barriers, and even cross highly selective membranes such as the blood-brain barrier or the placenta. Within the cell, they can trigger changes in gene expression and biochemical reactions, among other things. The long-term effects of these changes have not yet been sufficiently explored. However, it has already been shown that when passing the blood-brain barrier nanoplastics have a behaviour-changing effect in fish.
– sciencedaily.com, unenvironment.org
- Recent studies suggest that plastic waste is impacting the growth and reproductive success rates of the animals in our natural world, this is due to chemicals released from decomposing plastic creating a disruption in hormones … it’s believed that wildlife that that has been subjected to a mix of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are failing to reproduce, yet the impact of this hasn’t been fully discovered.
- EDC’s … can also be passed from mother to newborn through their milk supply, as it accumulates within the fat glands where the milk is produced.
- Plastic waste is also causing issues for birds, who are using strands of plastic mistaken for leaves and branches to build their nests, as an alternative to natural materials
- More concerningly, birds are mistaking plastic waste for food and feeding it to their chicks, to detrimental effect. Inside the stomachs of many deceased seabirds in the UK, scientists found scraps, plastic bottles, bags and packaging …
- [Wildlife species’ that drink from freshwater sources contaminated by chlorinated plastic for example may experience harmful effects]
- [some research indicates that] 50 per cent of freshwater insects tested in South Wales has microplastic inside of them
What Might Be Some Of The Solutions To Dry Land Plastic Pollution?
We’ve already written about potential solutions to ocean plastic pollution.
Some of those solutions would apply to dry land plastic pollution.
For example, the main ways to solve dry land plastic pollution would be to prevent/stop it in the first place by reducing the amount of ‘problem’ type plastics that we generate and that have the potential to become waste. This would be achieved on the individual/consumer, producer/business, and government/policy maker levels. But also, we can better manage plastic pollution by managing plastic waste better via recycling, landfill, waste incineration, and other options.
Other specific solutions might involve:
- Upgrading and improving waste management systems worldwide to better deal with, and contain plastic waste (e.g. making landfills more secure and contained instead of open and uncontained)
- Targeting plastic types with the highest waste % like plastic packaging (which is usually disposable, single use, and one of the most littered types of plastic)
- Focus on reducing the types of plastic that are littered the most
- Continue land and beach/coast cleanups picking up littered plastic
- Focus on preventing the spill or dumping of plastic into the most plastic polluted fresh water rivers in the world
- Focus on problem plastics like PVC that have their own leaching issues (PVC that is highly chlorinated especially)
- Focus on re-designing products that are releasing the most micro plastics and nano plastics, or micro beads
- Measure the plastic pollution in rivers, lakes and bottled drinking water worldwide – and, consider ways to decrease plastic concentration for the most polluted water
- Using natural fibres for textiles instead of synthetic plastic based fibres
- Using alternate materials other than plastic where possible for a range of products
- Redesigning plastic materials – for example, bioplastics and similar plastics might help
- There is no one solution to the problem [of plastic pollution on land], but for a better future for our planet, we need to innovate and implement new solutions to help us manage our plastic waste more efficiently.
- TOMRA Collection Solutions [has implemented solutions like] reverse vending machines, deposit return schemes, and Clean Loop Recycling
- By investing in better recycling technology rather than outsourcing waste, the recycling industry will see higher purity levels, meaning less material in landfills and less environmental pollution. The more material kept in a closed loop the less that ends up where it doesn’t belong, in our oceans, streets and landfills.
- Deposit return schemes and Clean Loop Recycling provide one part of the solution to changing attitudes around empty drink containers and improving recycling rates
- [to remove plastic from the environment, we might try …]
- One solution is to install and optimise wastewater treatment and other processes that remove microplastics from water sources
- Another is to use less plastic [where taxes and banning of certain types of plastic like single use plastic are options]
- Another is to recycle more
- Filtering water for infectious diseases and other microbes would also solve the problem of microplastics
- Although wastewater effluent is recognized as a key source of microplastic pollution in freshwater, pathogens and other chemicals associated with the lack of effective sewage treatment are of greater concern
- By addressing the bigger problem of exposure to faecally-contaminated water, communities can simultaneously address the smaller concern related to microplastics
- From the perspective of improving the quality of our drinking water, we need to focus on three things: prevention – limiting the amount of plastic that reaches any body of water; innovation – finding new ways to remove plastic that is already in our waterways and water supply; and activism – making citizens part of the solution by building a culture in which people actively think about and participate in reducing plastic consumption and contamination.
- [Individuals can also decrease plastic pollution by] properly disposing of plastic and not littering, pick up litter and participate in clean ups, avoiding products with microbeads and buying all natural products, change the way you wash your clothes, buy more natural fibre clothes and less synthetic fibre clothes, avoid purchasing bottled water, and look for water filters you can use at home for tap water and for your washing to eliminate or catch microfibres and micro plastics
1. Forschungsverbund Berlin. “An underestimated threat: Land-based pollution with microplastics.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 February 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180205125728.htm>