May 19, 2024

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Strawberry Farm Mystery: Plastic Mulch Leaches A Lot Of Debris Into Soil

Strawberry Farm Mystery: Plastic Mulch Leaches A Lot Of Debris Into Soil


Strawberry Farm Mystery: Plastic Mulch Leaches A Lot Of Debris Into Soil.


Researchers have discovered a worrying source of plastic pollution on a California strawberry farm.

Plastic mulches are a common tool for promoting strawberry growth, but studies have found that plastic mulches leach large amounts of debris into the soil. This phenomenon can adversely affect soil quality and cast doubt on the long-term sustainable use of plastic mulches.

The findings could have global implications for the use of plastics in agricultural production.


Strawberry Farm Mystery: Plastic Mulch Leaches A Lot Of Debris Into Soil


Presenting their work at the Goldschmidt Geochemistry conference in Lyon, postdoctoral researcher Dr Ekta Tiwari (from Cal Poly’s Sistla group) said: “We see that where mulch is used to increase strawberry yields, there are large numbers of large Particulate plastic material (particles larger than 5 mm in diameter) is shed. These plastics can remain in the soil for decades or more.”


Plastics such as polyethylene are increasingly used in agriculture, for example in polyethylene greenhouses. Plastic mulches are widely used in agriculture and offer a range of advantages. They cover the base of the plant and help control weeds and pathogens, reduce evaporation, and keep soil from splashing onto the fruit (which is especially important for strawberries).


Plastic mulches widely used to support strawberry growth in California introduce significant amounts of plastic debris into the soil, researchers have found. These debris negatively impact soil quality and pose challenges to the sustainability of plastic use in agriculture. Even careful removal of plastic mulch exacerbates the problem by allowing debris to attach to the soil, leading to long-term accumulation of plastic.


Mulch is laid in rows and then removed after the crop’s seasonal production is over. However, even if farmers manage their land carefully, they cannot ensure that all plastic is removed, as debris is left behind during the removal process and becomes attached to the soil. After decades of annual application and removal of plastic mulch, the researchers observed plastic debris accumulating in farmland soils, even in truly well-managed farmland. The researchers looked for macroplastics, fragments of plastic larger than 5 millimeters in diameter.


Ekta Tiwari said: “We systematically surveyed the strawberry fields after removing these plastic films seasonally. We found that they were fairly evenly distributed.

On the surface of the fields alone, we found up to 213,500 large plastic particles per hectare. This does not include subsurface particles that we did not investigate.

In addition, we are currently analyzing the same soil samples for microplastic particles that are smaller, less than 5 mm in diameter; our results do not yet include these microplastic particles.” Note: One hectare is 10,000 square meters.

In comparison, an average professional football field is about 7100 square meters and an American football field is 5350 square meters.


Most of the particles are polyethylene (identified by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy). In preliminary findings, the researchers found that as levels of macroplastic pollution increased, soil water content, microbial respiration, and the amount of nitrogen available to plants all decreased.


Dr Tiwari added: “Plastic mulch offers benefits at the expense of long-term soil quality. It is difficult and expensive to remove these particles from the soil, so once they are present, they remain in the soil indefinitely. We Strawberries are often thought of as something to be enjoyed, but this shows that even something as delicious as fresh strawberries comes at a cost to the environment. We are working with producers to see if we can reduce these costs.”


Alternatives to using polyethylene mulches are available, such as biodegradable plastic mulches or natural mulches such as straw, but these options come at an economic cost.

However, the use of plastics in agriculture is also increasingly regulated, please see details on EU information.


Professor Sean Schaeffer (University of Tennessee, Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science) commented:

“Plastics, especially plastic mulches, are critical to sustaining agricultural production. They serve a variety of purposes, including soil moisture retention, soil warming/cooling, and weed or pest control. The use of agricultural plastics is increasing globally, California is the largest user of agricultural plastics in the U.S. Research on the fate and transport of plastics in soil and water systems is relatively new, so studies like this are critical to improving our understanding of the scope of the plastic problem. Currently, we have Little is known about the distribution, size and type of plastic in soils in the states with the largest area and agricultural production.” This is an independent review, Professor Schaeffer was not involved in this work.


This work is a work in progress and has not yet been peer reviewed. Researchers are currently assessing the level of microplastic pollution (particles smaller than 5 mm) left behind by plastic mulch.

This study provides baseline data for understanding the extent of plastic pollution in U.S. agricultural systems and could help improve land management practices by assessing the biogeochemical consequences of plastic accumulation in agricultural soils.





Strawberry Farm Mystery: Plastic Mulch Leaches A Lot Of Debris Into Soil

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Important Note: The information provided is for informational purposes only and should not be considered as medical advice.