Fashionable organic food may be contaminating consumers with microplastics due to microplastic-filled compost polluting organic farms, according to a study published Wednesday in Science Advances.
German scientists studying organic fertilizer found it contained huge volumes of plastic and observed that “because of their small size, MPPs (microplastic particles) may presumably also enter the food web and thus potentially end up in human food.”
The study comes at a time when “organic” is marketed as a synonym for “good” in everything from salmon to sweet potatoes, and at a time of growing concern about plastics fouling the planet’s oceans.
Until now, microplastic pollution on land has attracted little attention, but the study warns that a closer look is needed. The study warns there is no telling what happens when microplastics mix with agriculture.
“There they pose a risk that is not yet predictable, because the interaction of MPPs with tissue and cells is poorly understood. Investigation of the interaction is further complicated by the fact that MPPs are not single compounds but constitute mixtures of different plastic types, each often consisting of a blend of synthetic polymers, residual monomers, and chemical additives.”
The study warns that the compost used in organic farming might not be all that much better than “sewage sludge,” which the Germans now incinerate to keep it from polluting the landscape.
Organic fertilizer, on the other hand, is spread across the landscape, and in the process appears to be distributing microplastics on a massive scale.
2.2 Trillion pieces
In Germany alone, the researchers from University of Bayreuth calculated organic fertilizers could be annually pumping into the environment somewhere between 35 billion and 2.2 trillion pieces of microplastic bigger than 1 mm in size. They could not calculate the volume below that size.
Most of this little-noticed plastic, according to the research team led by Nicolas Weithmann at Bayreuth, comes from polypropylene, polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyurethane, terephthalate (PET), and polystyrene.
Alaskans are well familiar with polypro. It’s the stuff used to make long johns and other undergarments now favored for winter wear for their ability to insulate without absorbing moisture.
Polyethylene, meanwhile, is the world’s most common plastic. It is regularly used for grocery bags and newspaper wrappers. PVC is used in everything from pipes for plumbing to credit cards. Polyurethane is used to make insulation and the foam that provides cushioning for chairs and couches.
PET is used to form the plastic water and soda bottles seen everywhere today and for packaging other food and merchandise. And polystyrene is used to make parts for appliances, electronic equipment and automobile parts, not to mention toys, disposable eating utensils, CD boxes, cups, carry-out food boxes, packaging and insulation. Big blocks of polystyrene sometimes wash up on Alaska beaches where they take years to decay.
The ocean decay of plastics into microplastics and even smaller, invisible microbeads has been an issue of growing concern among scientists.
“Microplastic contamination of the oceans is one of the world’s most pressing environmental concerns,” a group of British scientists reported in Nature Geoscience just last month.
When examining rivers in northwest England, they found “multiple urban contamination hotspots with a maximum microplastic concentration of approximately 517,000 particles per square meter.”
The good news was floods flushed most of it out sea. The bad news was floods flushed most of it out to sea.
Plastic stuffed salmon
“Many species of marine fish (more than 50) ingest plastic debris. Ingested plastic has a variety of lethal and sublethal impacts and can be a route for bioaccumulation of toxic compounds throughout the food web,” scientists from the University of California Davis reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences in August of last year.
The plastics have shown up in salmon from Alaska and elsewhere which is not good news for an Alaska salmon industry trying to promote its fish as healthier than farmed salmon.
“Unfortunately, you as a consumer would have no idea if the salmon you buy in the store has consumed plastic,” EcoWatch was warning as early as 2015. “But chances are, it has, either by mistaking it for food and eating it directly, or by feeding on zooplankton that have eaten the plastic.”
Emerging, on-land salmon farms have already latched onto the value of selling uncontaminated salmon in a marketplace where commercial salmon fishermen years ago started a fight with salmon farmers over which salmon is healthier: those caught in the wild or those raised in coastal pens.
A growing band of dry-land salmon farmers are making the argument the answer is neither, but instead “locally grown” fish raised in carefully monitored and filtered water.
“Our water is free from heavy metals and other contaminants, so our fish and produce are free of them too,” proclaims Superior Fresh, a joint salmon farm and greenhouse operation in Wisconsin.
The Superior pitch echoes that long used by organic farming advocates.
NaturesPath.com offers “11 Reasons Why Organic Food is Better for You & the Planet.’‘ The first reason involves “taking a stance against the large chemical producing corporations that have polluted the world’s food and fields,” the website says.
But the new study indicates organic farmers could unknowingly be among those polluting “the world’s foods and fields.” Scientists have for some time been questioning whether organic foods are really any healthier and the latest study only adds fuel to the debate.
Weithmann and his groups at the Process Biotechnology and Centre for Energy Technology in their study paint a picture of what might good intentions gone badly awry.
In Germany, huge volumes of organic waste from homes and industry are composted or first used for biogas energy production and then composted. Recycling organic material in this way is, “in principle, an environmentally sound practice to return nutrients, trace elements, and humus to the soil,” the study said.
“However, most household and municipal biowaste is contaminated by plastic material. Sieving and sifting procedures can significantly reduce, but never completely remove, these contaminants. Moreover, most countries allow a certain amount of foreign matter such as plastics in fertilizers; for example, Germany, which has one of the strictest regulations on fertilizer quality worldwide, allows up to” 0.1 percent of the fertilizer weight to be plastic particles larger than 2 mm.
Plastic particles smaller than 2 mm are not considered in calculating the amount of plastic in the fertilizer. There are no national standards for plastics in organic fertilizers in the U.S., but some states do regulate the amount of “inert material” – primarily glass and plastic – allowed in organic fertilizer.
“Compost will not contain greater than 3 percent inert materials that are greater than or equal to 4 millimeters,” a Minnesota statutes specifies. There is no limit on materials smaller than 4 millimeters, or a little more than an eight of an inch. The regulation appears aimed more at the cosmetic appearance of organic fertilizer than worries about microplastic pollution, which the German study suggests could be massive.
“In Germany alone, which has one of the strictest regulations on fertilizer quality worldwide, more than 12 million metric tons of biowaste were either composted or passed through municipal biogas plants in 2013,” the scientists wrote. “This quantity of biowaste translates into more than 5 million metric tons of compost from these plants, most of which is used in traditional agriculture and gardening.
By sampling small amounts of that compost for microplastics and then extrapolating for the 5 million tons of fertilizer, the scientists arrived at that estimate of 35 billion to 2.2 trillion pieces of microplastic larger than 1 mm and an unknown number of smaller particles.
The study then offered this comparison to other organic waste:
“Sewage sludge is in the public opinion increasingly seen as problematic waste inappropriate for redistribution into the environment, probably not least because of the contamination with heavy metals, residual pharmaceuticals, and also artificial fibers. The latter was detectable in agricultural soils up to 15 years after application of sewage sludge.”
Organic fertilizer, the study added, might not be much better because “MPPs from biowaste processing plants inevitably enter the environment. Because Germany has one of the strictest regulations on fertilizer quality worldwide, we here report only on the ‘best case scenario,’ whereas the MPP contamination in countries with less strict regulations may be even higher.”
The study called for a much closer examination of what happens to these plastics in nature. They could further break down in harmless ways or bioaccumulate as dangerous poisons in the food chain.
“At least one study has shown that (pristine) polyethylene particles mixed with litter and offered to earthworms for uptake led to higher mortality and a reduced growth rate,” the study said. If the worms that survive accumulate polyethylene pollutants, they could pass them along to the birds that eat worms and move the chemicals up the food chain.
“Further studies on the possible consequences and impacts of MPP contamination of fertilizers originating from biowaste treatment plants for soil quality and soil life forms are necessary before any risk assessment can be undertaken,” the scientists concluded.
It could turn out that eating small bits of plastic with every meal is harmless, or it could be that microplastic-coated organic lettuce or microplastic-filled Alaska salmon could be trying to do you in.
“Microplastic is actually very absorbent and picks up the chemicals it is floating in. So it’s not just the plastic a fish is eating, but all of the contaminants in that plastic as well,” EcoWatch warned. “That goes for us, too, if we eat a fish that’s eaten plastic particles.”
North Pacific Ocean fishes ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year, according to The Center for Biological Diversity, which claims “that a quarter of fish at markets in California contained plastic in their guts, mostly in the form of plastic microfibers.”
The activist group contends that, among other chemicals, the plastics “release potentially toxic chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), which can then enter the food web. When fish and other marine species mistake the plastic items for food, they ingest the particles and pass toxic chemicals through the food chain and ultimately to our dinner plates.”
BPA is a chemical that leeches out of many water bottles, and its danger has been hotly debated in recent years.
“Many studies have been done on BPA in rodents and have shown that BPA is an endocrine disrupter and acts like the hormone estrogen,” writes Dana E. Christofferson at the Harvard Medical School. “Much of the controversy surrounds the determination of a safe dose of BPA for humans.”
As with all chemicals, the dangers relate directly to dosage. H2O can kill you if you drink enough of it. The problem with microplastics is that it is unclear as to exactly how they breakdown in the environment, and nobody has a clue as to what dosages of the derivative chemicals might begin to cause health problems in humans.
The German study raises a lot of question in a world filled with plastics. Look around you wherever you sitting at this moment, plastics are everywhere.
Stream straying is a part of the natural spawning cycle of both pinks and chums, in PWS. The pink salmon spawning in the Eastern district this season, will be spawning in the SouthWest district, 100 years from now. The Sound is one big circle, that the “wild” salmon move around in. Chums and pinks do not care and it does them no harm, when they come back to different stream, than they came out of.
Before 1974, PWS had small chum & pink returns, to the mostly glacier fed streams, they spawn out of. PWSAC, with its “Ocean Ranching” hatcheries, have contributed millions of dollars to the communities and municipalities of Cordova, Tatitlek, Valdez, Whittier, Chenega, Seward, Homer and the State of Alaska, during the last 40 years.
At the same time all the user groups (subsistence, sport, charter and commercial) have benefited greatly, from the harvest of all 5 species of Pacific Salmon inside PWS.
Back to straying:
Salmon stray, period! What do you not understand, concerning that fact?
I feel blessed we have mostly healthy wild salmon stocks in our state. The State Constitution has sustainability written into it. ADF&G is doing a great job of managing our state’s resources.
As a matter of fact, the State of Alaska is the only state, in all 50, that has sustainable fisheries.
On the Eastern seaboard, all they have left is what we Alaskans call scrap fish.
We should celebrate, what we have in Alaska, and so buck it up.
What is the difference between a puppy and a fisher? The puppy quits whining, after 6 weeks.
That joke pertains to any person who harvests fish, no matter what user group, they belong to. Myself included.
James, while you’ve possibly see this it does pertain to the straying of hatchery fish: http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/PDFs/hatcheries/research/2016_pwssc_annual_report.pdf
Further, related to a conversation (Juneau Empire) I had with a SE troller (based in Oregon) who was whining on the recent closures to their king salmon season this year, his complaint mentioned his belief that many king salmon are straying to further North river systems, due to warming temps. in Gulf of Alaska. I’m not buying it, but a few of our Northern rivers have bounced back from their problems of a couple of years ago. While salmon in general may migrate further north in their feeding habits, I find it hard to believe they are straying to further northern rivers unless their rivers are becoming too hot for spawning (haven’t heard of any such thing in SE).
Of further interest in this conversation with this power troller, he mentioned being tied to the dock and yet he insisted that he (and rest of troll fleet) would be shaking enormous numbers of king salmon this year just like always. I then asked him how he could do such while being tied to the dock and his reply was that starting in July they will be targeting coho in outside waters and the shaking will occur then. Anyway, we went back and forth a bit until he suddenly removed all of his posts-my guess is some wiser trollers convinced him of his folly in telling the truth about what goes on with that fleet.
I’ve always been of the opinion that they’ve not been shaking that many king salmon during their coho season but that appears to be incorrect (according to one of their own). Granted in a normal year for king salmon, such mortality of king salmon might be acceptable, but in today’s Alaska king salmon issues in ocean environment my feelings are that such a fishery cannot continue to operate without observers to record just exactly what is happening.
James: that is excellent summary of the pro view. there is, however, a con view around which some interesting data is accumulating.
Agree with Steve to some degree. Inadequate organic study . Need exact info of what’s in organic food versus inorganic. Many factors not considered. Water air past soil where compost came from on and on . It appears possible the people who made study were trying to slant something their way or else were foolish scientists who forgot appropriate methods ? Controls ? Is that possible? It also appears they also appear not to have considered different plants uptake different chemicals to different degrees . Possibly also during different soil and weather conditions. I worry far more when we all breath air polluted from chemicals which eventually pollutes the soil and then plants – animals. Although plastic is a concern. But may effect organic and inorganic to some degree . Very little plastic in home gardens but there is often fish products . Pretty complicated. Inorganic is primarily fertilizer from petrochemicals thus an almost guaranteed uptake of many different questionable chemicals it could uptake as it’s bound to the plants food source . Thus I say the study mentioned in this article is beyond incomplete possibly a misleading concept?
My biggest concern to our food sources comes from Monsanto’s GMO seeds…especially the ones they market as “round up ready”.
These seeds allow farmers to dump Round Up Herbicides on the crops without damage.
On average a pound of the herbicide Glyphosate (Round Up’s main ingredient) is sprayed on each acre farmed in America.
The link I am pasting below states; “Glyphosate has been detected in cookies, crackers, chips, cereals, honey, human urine and breast milk”
This stuff scares me and this is why we have our own organic garden for vegetables at home.
An aside here Steve, is that Mexico does not allow glyphosate because even those treated seeds gives enough of it to the pollen that bees harvest makes their honey not available to export to Europe. This amazed me that a glyphosate treated corn seed would allow enough in the plant pollen to be detectable and Europe doesn’t allow any glyphosate in their imported foods.
Not a problem for our honey producers, as we don’t export it, but might want to re-think eating it. Of course Monsanto insists its safe. The shelves are full of Round-Up right now. Get em while its hot.
The big question is why does the EPA and USDA allow Monsanto to engineer GMO “round up ready” seeds and cover them with Glyphosate, when Mexico and the EU will not allow either practice?
The video in the Bloomberg report (I linked to above) states [1.4 Billion pounds of Glyphosate is applied to the earth every year].
Another study I read states 75 percent of air samples contain Glyphosate.
I am afraid this is the new DDT of the 21st century.
The fact that it transports through breast milk into the child is very concerning, for that was an initial “red flag” for DDT back in the 1950’s.
Hmm .Missing info ? exactly what are farm raised fish fed ? I read a bag couple years ago . Wasn’t good . What are their stress levels from to many in one place ? How does that effect them as food ? A fish who works hard to catch food will be in better athletic condition and has chance to catch natural diet . How does that effect nutrition value ? Certain sea life give reds color and certain nutrition value. Does fitness effect their nutrition value ? It should. In game animals living wild life protein value is higher or appears so . Would a fit animals red cells have more nutrition value than a weak animal? Also consider ethics of keeping an animal in a pen with no real life . Unethical? Personally I feel it’s natural chain if a predator takes a wild fish that had adventures in life . Closer to ethical? Seems like a true study needs carefully done . By much more careful scientists . Until then I trust nature and wild fish .
Thank you for posting this article. We will be considering an ordinance at the Wednesday Soldotna City Council meeting that would ban plastic bags after November 2018. I will probably use some of the information you published.
Good story, but you are misleading readers with your organic fear mongering.
Less than 4 percent of all food grown in U.S. is considered “Organic” so it is a very small amount and most of this is through private small controlled gardens at resident’s homes.
As for the real threat you hit on it with salmon “contamination”.
Maybe the garbage blob in the Pacific is contributing to decrease in smolt survivability and plastic toxin release and injestion?
New studies say the pile of plastic in the Pacific Ocean is larger than the size of Mexico.
I don’t have a link Steve, but have read that small plastics that float on the surface have been trawled up in many places (worldwide) and the most interesting thing about them is that those with brown and tan coloring are missing. Speculation is that they’ve been removed by seabirds and possibly fish feeding on them because they simulate their food. And there have been seabird carcasses that have shown up with plastics in their stomachs.
While that garbage patch probably doesn’t enter into our salmon issues IMO, due to its location, we could possibly have a problem with salmon eating certain plastics (maybe those plastics that do not float).
Looking at ocean currents and samples of plastic pellets, it is quite possible these plastics are effecting salmon smolt survival.
I guess it is a 1:2 ratio of plastic pellets to plankton right now and at the current rate of contamination…the plastics will outweigh the fish by 2050.
fear mongering? really? a story saying nobody knows if eating plastic is harmful for humans or not is fear mongering? a story about a study documenting organic fertilizer spreading plastic across the landscape is fear mongering? apparently that’s what happens. it might be a good thing. who knows. most people objects to litter because of aesthetics. maybe it would make sense to grind it all up and just spray it back on the land.
I am concerned of plastic in food sources (which can cause cancer).
Organic gardens are not the enemy though…
Americans should be way more concerned of the 60 plus billion dollar merger between Bayer and Monsanto.
This is where 90 percent of food will come from.
GMO seeds with pesticides designed inside of seed.
Brave New World food production, many untested or proven chemical compounds.
Much GMO technology that was outlawed in EU, but used on U.S. monoculture farms.
Guinea Pig mentality!
Victoria, BC (southern tip of Vancouver Island) dumped raw untreated sewage for decades into the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Only last couple years, a waste treatment system has been in place.
During those untreated years, seafood from Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and the Washington coast was harvested and consumed nation & internationally wide, with no issues or concerns.
The geoduck, clam, oyster, crab and mussel fisheries are exported worldwide and are sustainable.
On the other hand, due to the environmental damage to streams, river beds and lakes, the once healthy “wild” salmon, native to Puget Sound are now basically gone.
One reason fishers from the lower 48 (like myself) migrated up to Alaska.
Getting back to your essay, my point;
The human body has an amazing garbage disposal system, it flushes the majority of toxins out. What is left is usually dealt with by a healthy immune system, that is beyond compare.
Consumers eating Alaskan salmon will still be better off, than a person, eating a fish, that swims in its own feces.
Thanks for the memories Craig, the hits just keep on coming.
humans are indeed blessed with ability to eat crap, extract nutrients from it, and survive, James. we are in some ways little more than two-legged rats in that regard. but in terms of our ability to alter the environments in which we live, we have no match.
the wild salmon of Puget Sound are in tough shape, but then again so are the wild salmon of Prince William Sound. hatchery fish seem to be steadily taking over the entire West Coast.
What wild salmon in Pws are you talking about? You keep talking like Pws used ro be full of wild salmon. That was never the case. It used to be full of wild herring on the south end till Exxon. The only major natural salmon run in Pws is Coghill and Mainbay both are doing just fine. You keep saying the hatcheries are killing off natural runs in Pws but that tells me just how ignorant you are. I was raised on Perry Island. What major rivers in Pws have a Natural Salmon run? Keep spreading your gate and lies all you want but when it comes to Pws, I forgot more than you will ever know.
I suspect that you mean Eshamy Bay (not Mainbay), Thomas.
The wild chums of College Fiord were somehow overpowered by hatchery chums from Esther Hatchery and I suspect they no longer exist. And a lot of small wild pink runs near all those PWS pink hatcheries suffered a similar fate. None of these runs are from what you refer to as major rivers but they did get displaced by hatchery fish despite your being raised on Perry Island.
I’m not saying that PWS fishermen would have been better off, without those hatcheries, but the subject was whether/not wild salmon runs there are being killed by hatcheries.