Such is the magnitude of our plastic pollution problem that tiny particles of the stuff continue to turn up in all kinds of unexpected places, from snowfall in the Arctic to the sea ice in the Antarctic. That tiny fragments also exist in the soil is perhaps not so surprising, but researchers have now conducted one of the first studies on what this means for plant life, finding that it can reduce the total biomass of the finished product.
The study was carried out by an international team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Shandong University in China, who set out to investigate how plastic pollution could be infiltrating the Earth’s soil and plant life, with a particular focus on agricultural settings.
While a plastic bag or soda bottle may make its way into the ocean or environment as a complete piece of trash, the weather and other corrosive forces can quickly break it down into smaller fragments that are difficult to track.
These microplastics measuring less than 5 mm (0.2 in) in size are a huge focal point for researchers of ocean plastics, but the authors of the new study turned their attention to even tinier fragments measuring less than 100 nanometers, described as nanoplastics. Along with changes to the physical size of these plastic pieces, the degradation process can also alter their chemical properties and even equip them with a surface charge.