Earthworms consume microplastics in the soil. That may lead to a worrying collapse of biodiversity.

Jan 29, 2020 by

Daily Kos


We consume these plastics from our food and water. We don’t know what effect it is having on our bodies though one study from Singapore did find that microplastics are full of bacteria. Some of which are toxic to humans.

Microplastics are tiny bits of plastic that fall off of degrading water bottles and plastic bags. This degradation is wreaking havoc in global biodiversity and the ability of ecosystems to function.

Most of us are quite familiar with the problems plastic poses in the oceans, and a new study found that the microbeads and plastics are also a threat to the land, particularly agriculture.

The Big Think provides a summary of the findings:

“Dirt” and “soil,” to non-farmers at least, are often treated as an earth layer; referencing it is often in the negative, as when a parent scolds a child for “playing in the dirt.” But soil is a process, living and organic, dependent on decaying and dead matter constantly being churned through (by earthworms, for example) and recycled.

Soil is one of the major reasons that America has become a global power. Our fields supply an incredible amount of food for the planet. By contrast, China, with its billion-plus population to feed, struggles to produce adequate amounts of nutrition due to less fertile soil. This is, in fact, one of the undiscussed underpinnings of the current “trade war.”

Damaged soil destroys not only ecosystems, but societies as well. When famers try to increase crop yield by introducing plastic mulches and irrigation, they’re unknowingly polluting the soil with tons of microplastic particles. These particles are then ingested by earthworms (among other animals), causing them to lose weight.

The research team chose the most important grass grown in temperate regions; in grassland ecosystems ryegrass is abundant. A variety of ecosystems were used, some with added microplastics, one control without. Earthworms were most affected by HDPE microplastics, though any of the added particles made life worse for the worms.

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Seals from Canada’s eastern Arctic have so far managed to avoid the scourge of plastic pollution. 

Scientists Managed to Find Marine Animals that Weren’t Contaminated by Plastic | Hakai Magazine

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Soil is generally low in nutrient value, meaning that worms have to eat and pass a lot of it for their existence. The team compares the results to aquatic environments, in which the digestive tracts of fish, like worms, are obstructed and worn away. The consumption of microplastic particles stunts their growth while compromising the survival of the organism.

Beyond worms, the particles (especially HDPE) decrease soil pH. This directly affects the diversity of organisms living there. As with the human microbiome, in which a diverse population of bacteria is healthiest, soil pays a steep price when diversity drops.

In summary, the findings found plastic in our soils causes earthworms to lose weight. As a result,  stunted worms produce fewer crops and the plastics lower the PH in the ground and poses a significant risk to our agricultural systems.

Sperm Whales found on a beach in Germany. The whales had plasitc in their stomachs.
Sperm Whales found on a beach in Germany. The whales had plastic in their digestion tracts.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry will increase the production of plastics in response to probable reductions in the use of their product due to the climate crisis.

Beth Gardiner writes in Yale360:

As public concern about plastic pollution rises, consumers are reaching for canvas bags, metal straws, and reusable water bottles. But while individuals fret over images of oceanic garbage gyres, the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries are pouring billions of dollars into new plants intended to make millions more tons of plastic than they now pump out.

Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Saudi Aramco are ramping up output of plastic — which is made from oil and gas, and their byproducts — to hedge against the possibility that a serious global response to climate change might reduce demand for their fuels, analysts say. Petrochemicals, the category that includes plastic, now account for 14 percent of oil use, and are expected to drive half of oil demand growth between now and 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says. The World Economic Forum predicts plastic production will double in the next 20 years.

“In the context of a world trying to shift off of fossil fuels as an energy source, this is where [oil and gas companies] see the growth,” said Steven Feit, a staff attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, an advocacy group.

And because the American fracking boom is unearthing, along with natural gas, large amounts of the plastic feedstock ethane, the United States is a big growth area for plastic production. With natural gas prices low, many fracking operations are losing money, so producers have been eager to find a use for the ethane they get as a byproduct of drilling.

This content was created by a Daily Kos Community member.

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