13 April 2021

“Plastic in soils, why the EU Commission has not yet raised this issue?”

agriculture, plastic, mulches

The European Circular Bioeconomy Policy Initiative ask the EU Commission to take action for the issue of plastic contamination in the soil. The proposal: allowing the use of only certified compostable bioplastic. Italy indicated as an example to imitate

by Emanuele Isonio


“European policies obsess with banning straws or plastic cups (no objection on this) they overlook a far larger source of pollution, the contamination of soil. Why the Commission has not yet raised this issue is frankly difficult to understand given the overwhelming evidence”.

The EU Commission ends up in the dock for its inaction in tackling plastic pollution on farmland. The concern comes from the European Circular Bioeconomy Policy Initiative (ECBPI), a network of European research institutions and companies created to stimulate the circular bioeconomy and strengthen the market outlets for bio-based materials. Its managing director, David Newman, raised the issue in a letter sent last week to European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans and Environment Commissioner Virginjus Sinkevičius and published by Politico.eu.

More plastic in fields than in rivers and seas

“We raised this issue before DG ENVI in January 2020. After more than a year, so far to my knowledge no progress has been made in drawing up policies that limit the legally permitted pollution of soils from plastics used daily in agriculture” Newman warns.

The letter points out that current estimates made in Germany, the UK and Spain show that plastic waste spread to (or left in) farm soils is potentially several times more than plastic waste leaking into water courses and our seas across the European continent.

Alarming Data

On the other hand, the data on plastic pollution in agricultural soils already available today are clear: agricultural plastics represent 5% of the plastic waste produced in Europe. In European soils, 15 thousand tons of microplastics are released every year. Among them, mulching films represent a far from minor problem: they are difficult to recycle and a lot of them are used. “In the European market, 80 thousand tons are used,” says Sara Guerrini, agronomist at Novamont. “Of these, 95% are non-renewable and non-biodegradable. Moreover, 30% remains in the soil”. The phenomenon is known as “white pollution” and has a negative impact on the growth and development of crops: their yield can drop by up to 15%.

Some European territories, such as the case of Murcia and the United Kingdom, are particularly alarming: “the use of plastic soil cover (mulch) has led to the disastrous accumulation of plastic fragments in soil” Newman reports. “These accumulate year after year, leaving soils barren and sterilised because even the best extraction practices and recycling schemes cannot guarantee 100% elimination of the plastic films post use”.

A bubble that will burst

In the coming years, then, the problem is set to get worse: the amounts of plastics entering soils is destined to grow enormously from 2023 onwards, as mandated food waste collections across the EU bring greater volumes of materials to be composted, digested in AD plants, and subsequently spread to soil as outputs.

But if food waste is dumped in plastic bags, they will enter the compost cycle and end up in fields. “At present – Newman writes – we are allowing plastics to enter food waste collection and treatment systems. There is no legally binding guidance on separate collection of bio-waste. Plastics enter as bags used by citizens to collect food waste”.

Initiatives taken at the community level, however, are latent: neither the Farm to Fork Communication nor Biodiversity Strategy highlight the need to have plastic-free collections of organic waste, nor to have infrastructure in place to ensure delivery of high-quality compost. “Yet – ECBPI’s letter to the European Commission reminds – “the strategies both talk about the need to improve organic carbon levels in soils. Where are these going to come from if not from composted wastes?

Possible solutions?

In the letter, however, Newman recalls that technical solutions exist and are already available on the market. Some European countries can even provide best practices that can be easily adopted in the rest of the EU. Among them, Italy deserves public praise: “Half of all the food waste collected in the EU comes from Italy,” Newman said. The 20 years of experience show how the contamination of plastic in compost can be drastically reduced by using the correct tools for the collection of organic waste, such as EN13432 certified compostable bags. The results achieved are already impressive: in Italy plastic contamination is on average 3% but many areas show less than 1%. In Germany, contamination is 3 to 5 times higher. In Spain and Romania it reaches rates between 15 and 25%.

Also on the front of mulching sheets, the solution is already available: the EU approved a standard in 2018 (the EN17033). But this mulch still costs three times more than traditional plastic sheeting. The scale of production is still small, although it avoids the problems of soil contamination. Incentives for farmers using compostable sheeting would help increase economies of scale and thus drive down the cost of low-impact mulch. “The alternatives exist without traumatising society or devastating the economy” ECBPI’s letter ends. “Indeed, they would stimulate bioeconomy production here, in the EU. Whilst most of our plastic films are imported, biodegradable and compostable films are made in Europe”.