The prevalence of microplastics – plastics that are either produced or have broken down to a size smaller than five millimeters – has emerged as a critical concern for both human health and the well-being of ecosystems within the last decade. Scientific research shows that the problem is only escalating. Studies published in the first half of this year alone demonstrate how further investigation into the extent of the microplastic crisis has yielded concerning results. These results emphasize the magnitude of the problem, as microplastics have been found in human blood, snow from the Rocky Mountains and Antarctica, and inside the meat and milk of farm animals. When examining the potential impacts of microplastics, scientists highlight the abundance of unknowns as research has struggled to keep up with measuring the impact on the countless new areas where microplastics have been found. A 2021 comprehensive study indicated that despite these uncertainties, evidence suggests that microplastics can have adverse effects on the human digestive, respiratory, and immune systems, in addition to causing toxicity in aquatic ecosystems and soil.
While failing to directly address the extensive nature of microplastics, government at the federal and state level has not been completely silent on the proliferation of plastics in the environment and tools to prevent microplastics exist. At the federal level, the Microbead Free Waters Act of 2015 banned cosmetics from containing intentionally-added plastic microbeads. Even before that, in 1988, the Ocean Dumping Act amended the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act to include plastics as a material prohibited from being dumped by vessels. Additionally, the Clean Water Act’s Effluent Guidelines and Standards for Organic Chemicals, Plastics, and Synthetic Fibers (OCPSF) applies to industrial chemical facilities and limits the discharge of plastics into certain waterways. To supplement federal regulations, some states have taken the initiative to create their own laws and policy that attempts to control plastic, with California at the forefront. Perhaps most recently, the California Ocean Protection Council set forth the Statewide Microplastics Strategy to outline priorities in reducing microplastics. California has also passed legislation to prevent plastic pollution. Senate Bill 54, passed in June of this year, aims to achieve a 25% reduction in single-use plastic by 2032 and utilizes an extended producer responsibility structure, where single-use plastic producers are required to contribute to the disposal of their products.
While each of these laws – both federal and state – holds importance, together they still leave significant room for the microplastic crisis to continue to worsen. The existing laws form a patchwork that leaves gaps for microplastics sourced from certain sectors that regularly practice the intentional use of microplastics or those that enter the environment through routes that have been unaddressed by legislation. For example, plastic microfibers, considered to be one of the most prevalent types of microplastic, are included in many clothing products and released into waterways when consumers use washing machines. While synthetic fibers are addressed in the OCPSF Effluent Guidelines and Standards, the application of this regulation is confined to certain facilities, leaving the issue of microplastic pollution resulting from laundry unaddressed. In effect, current regulations recognize the harm that can be caused by plastics and synthetic fibers in one instance but ignore how the same harm could be introduced into the environment by taking a different pathway.
In May of this year, the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) identified another area where a gap exists in our defense against microplastic pollution. In its report, “Sowing a Plastic Planet: How Microplastics in Agrochemicals Are Affecting Our Soils, Our Food, and Our Future,” CIEL focused on the intentional use of microplastics in the agricultural sector. This use proliferated as manufacturers attempted to improve efficiency by utilizing “controlled release technology.” To create this technology, manufacturers encapsulate fertilizer in plastic, allowing for the chemicals to be slowly released over time. Once fully dispensed, microplastics are left in the soil where our food is grown and enter aquatic ecosystems via runoff.
Concerningly, the intentional use of microplastics in the agricultural sector shows no signs of slowing down and the industry uses several techniques to ensure that continued reliance on their product exists. One of the most convincing arguments the industry makes is that food security depends upon the availability to use methods like controlled release technology. To disprove this notion, CIEL cites a report by the United Nations stating that the risks inherent in promoting reliance on pesticides offset the benefits and frustrates the achievement of food security. In addition to making this general argument, the agricultural industry uses other marketing tactics. For example, the industry presents controlled release as a “safe” option, fails to mention that the product contains microplastics, and claims that the efficiency of controlled release makes it more adaptable to climate change or lends itself to sustainable farming, contributing to the message that microplastics allow nutrient release in a more targeted way that can reduce losses to air or water. The use of microplastics in controlled release technology does not create the benefits the industry claims it does – in fact, the opposite may be true. CIEL cites an Oregon State University study which concluded that because encapsulation by microplastics prevented the active chemicals inside from breaking down, the use of this method increased toxicity. Overall, CIEL concluded that the combination of microplastics and agricultural chemicals proves to be particularly dangerous to human health and ecosystems. Because microplastics can contain toxic additives to begin with, have the tendency to serve as a vector for other toxins they come into contact with, and have been found to be capable of entering the human body, their proliferation in agricultural settings already abundant with toxins takes advantage of a concerning gap that plastic pollution regulation in the U.S. does not accommodate for.
In the future, plastic pollution regulation in the U.S. must evolve to close these gaps. CIEL’s report offers recommendations that may help to achieve this. The initial step includes gathering more data on the intentional use of plastics across all sectors to identify where government needs to take action. From here, reliance on methods that intentionally integrate microplastics into products should be ended. As an overall goal, CIEL emphasizes the importance of maintaining a legally binding and comprehensive approach. Without taking the time to tailor laws to cover the multitude of pathways microplastics take, microplastics will continue to jeopardize human health and the environment.