Sean Smith (pictured) is the CEO of Eden Research plc, an AIM-quoted company focused on sustainable biopesticides and plastic-free encapsulation technology for use in the global crop protection, animal health and consumer product industries.
We are hearing more and more about microplastics infiltrating the environment. In some contexts, plastics have been considered a more sustainable option than natural resources, however it is now evident that plastic pollution is a significant global problem. Nature simply does not have the tools to effectively break many of these materials down in the environment. Consequently, plastics, particularly microplastics, which measure under 5mm in length, are increasingly being found in new places, including plant and animal tissues. Microplastics have been found as far south as Antarctica and present in deep sea basins such as the Tyrrhenian basin between Italy and Corsica.
The solution to the microplastic problem is not as simple as placing a blanket ban on the most popular plastic forms. Plastic is fundamental to many industries and in many cases remains the most suitable material of choice, so a large-scale ban on the use of plastics could negatively impact those industries and the products that we have become dependent on. As is the case with most sustainability issues, the most effective course of action is to make small improvements step by step where safer and equally effective alternatives can be chosen to adequately replace plastic. This requires innovation and a holistic, lasting commitment to sustainability.
Improvements of this nature are happening. The best example is the hospitality industry’s phasing out of plastic straws due to increasing consumer pressure. However, much of the focus on cutting back on plastic is consumer-focused and there is little understanding of where plastics and microplastics are used in industry and what can be done. Most notably, it is not widely known that microplastics play a role in boosting the performance of products such as fertilisers, crop protection products, food supplements, consumer and household products and medicine, and are intentionally commonly added to formulations within these different industries. The volume of microplastic pollution in the EU alone from these “intentionally added” sources is estimated to be close to 36,000 tonnes per year according to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). This is equivalent to the unintentional releases of microplastics that could occur each year from about 10 billion plastic bottles.
Though this figure is shocking, these intentionally added microplastics do serve an important purpose. For example, microplastics are used in fertilisers and crop protection products to encapsulate active ingredients and allow for the safe, controlled release of these actives. In these cases, plastics play a vital role in the effective protection and growth of crops whilst reducing the total amount of chemical input required and minimising any losses. A controlled release mechanism is often essential to ensure that products are targeted and released in such a way that they will be most beneficial. Ultimately, encapsulation technology is playing a crucial role in global food supply, boosting yields, and cutting down on crops lost to pests and disease.
The agriculture industry is the largest user of intentionally added microplastics, and the products using microcapsules have a direct release impact to the environment. This means that 100% microplastics in these products are applied to crops or the soil and have the potential to pollute the environment. Some studies into the impacts of microplastics in soil have highlighted that they negatively impact on earthworms and other soil biota, which represent a large proportion of the Earth’s biodiversity and play important roles in the transportation of nutrients. Evidence shows that mircoplastics also end up in groundwater and thus the wider water system. Recently, research published in Nature Sustainability found that microplastics are penetrating the roots of fruits and vegetables and are being transported to the edible parts of plants and entering the food chain.
Despite the focus on issues like single use plastic, there is also a direct risk that intentionally added microplastics will end up polluting the environment. Whereas larger plastic litter can be managed somewhat through waste management, intentionally added microplastics are directly applied to the environment and their microscopic size makes it impossible to track them once they are released. On top of this, microplastics can also fragment into nanoplastics which have the potential to penetrate critical biological barriers. As already mentioned, this process is apparent in plants and published studies have detected nanoplastics in liver tissue and circulation systems of sampled animals.
Cutting out intentionally added microplastics is a logical and realistic prospect for two reasons. Firstly, the “intentionally added” nature of these microplastics means that we know exactly why, where, and how much microplastic is being used. Secondly, sustainable alternatives already exist. For example, at Eden Research, we have developed Sustaine™, a microencapsulation technology derived from yeast extract which allows for the safe, efficient and controlled release of active ingredients whilst being completely plastic free and biodegradable. The technology has been developed to encapsulate the company’s biopesticide active ingredients and is already used in two commercial products available to farmers today.
The demand for technology to replace microplastics in formulations is growing rapidly and our team is working with major agroscience companies to apply it to other crop protection products, including conventional pesticides, so that farmers can effectively protect their crops without contributing to microplastic pollution. Eden is also working to determine how the Sustaine technology is applicable to other industries, such as healthcare and consumer products.
There is building pressure for industries to remove intentionally added microplastics and, in some regions, there are regulatory deadlines in place. In 2019, ECHA proposed a restriction on the use of intentionally added plastics with a phasing out transition period lasting 5 years. In June 2020 the EU Committee for Risk Assessment (RAC) confirmed their decision to support this restriction and the expectation is that EU member states will vote on this is 2021, with the restrictions being adopted in 2022. During the transition, companies will have to re-formulate any products which have up to now relied on microplastic encapsulation.
The reduction of microplastic pollution is an ongoing challenge around the world but consciously removing sources of ‘intentionally added’ microplastic is a logical step forward. Banning the use of microbeads in rinse-off cosmetic products was widely welcomed by consumers and regulators alike. Continuing pressure will drive further uptake of technology like Sustaine which offers a viable alternative for encapsulation in formulations which currently act as a source of microplastic pollution.
The EU’s proposal is a landmark piece of regulation which will hopefully bring about similar proposals elsewhere. Cutting out the use of any and all plastic is not an option but cutting out direct sources of microplastic pollution is.
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