Concept

Better understanding the impacts & life-cycles of plastic pollution to better protect our soils

The scope of the project:

PAPILLONS – Plastic in Agricultural Production: Impacts, Life-cycles and LONg-term Sustainability – is a research project supported by the European Commission. We study the sources, behaviour and ecological effects of micro and nanoplastics in agricultural soils, resulting from the use of agricultural plastics.

Agricultural plastics:

Each year, 3 to 4 million tonnes of agricultural plastics are used in Europe, which generates 1 million tonnes of waste. Over one third of this total is used in the form of protected cultivation plastic films including greenhouse systems, low tunnels, covers and mulching films. These different plastic applications can increase crop yield by, for example, controlling pests or protecting plants from harsh conditions.

Mission:

Micro- and nanoplastics in soils represent a form of irreversible pollution. It is increasingly evident that farmed lands are becoming hotspots of this pollution. Plastics reach farmed soils through the use of biological contaminated fertilisers (such as sewage sludge and some types of compost), wastewater irrigation, runoff from roadways and atmospheric deposition.

Some of the ways in which we use agricultural plastics, along with mismanagement of plastic waste, are also an important source of pollution. Mulching films and covers are used in close contact to the soil. During use and handling these materials can break and degrade, generating fragments that are then released directly into the soil (including micro- and nanoplastics).

The European scale of this pollution, the potential long-term impacts on soil ecosystems and ability to support agricultural production are unknown. PAPILLONS is actively working to solve this knowledge gap through surveys, monitoring activities and scientific experiments.

Our mission: deliver knowledge and help farmers, industries, regulators and policy makers to introduce practices, products and instruments that guarantee the safe use of agricultural plastics and promote the sustainability of farming systems.

Policy context:

Healthy soil ecosystems are essential for achieving the objectives of the European Green Deal such as climate neutrality, biodiversity restoration, zero pollution, healthy and sustainable food systems and a resilient environment.

The European Commission has recently launched the Soil Health Mission, with the aim to ensure 75% of soils in Europe are healthy by 2030 and are able to provide essential ecosystem services, including the provision of safe food and biomass. In relation to this mission, the EU Soil Strategy cross-cuts several EU documents (Biodiversity Strategy, Farm to Fork Strategy, Zero pollution Strategy), which are also reflected in the pillars of the new Common Agricultural Policy.

PAPILLONS is an important instrument for the implementation of the Soil Strategy providing Research & Innovation Action supported under the Horizon 2020 framework. PAPILLONS products will also be relevant for the implementation of the EU Plastic Strategy in the Circular Economy, providing an inventory of agricultural plastic usage, management and mismanagement in Europe.

Multi-actor approach:

Knowledge co-development and dissemination to a range of actors in the agricultural, industry and policy sectors in Europe are central pillars in the PAPILLONS project. PAPILLONS engage with these stakeholders through four working groups: ‘Farm synergies’, ‘Industry synergies’, ‘Policy synergies’ and ‘Local multi-actor fora’).

This interaction will bring together the relevant people to collaboratively develop important knowledge on the uses and distribution of agricultural plastic in Europe, the management of waste and the chemical characteristics of materials that can serve as source of pollution to the environment.

Through Policy synergies we aim in particular at establishing a direct dialogue for the dissemination of funding within National and European regulatory bodies (e.g. ECHA and EFSA) and policy makers (e.g. DG-Environment, DG-AGRI, DG-SANTE).

The knowledge hub hosted on the PAPILLONS website is a platform for stakeholders with different interests to share knowledge, visions and strategies relevant for the sustainable use of plastic in agriculture and the endorsement of soil health.

Research objectives:

The PAPILLONS research plan articulates around the following actions:

– Developing a European inventory of agricultural plastic use and potential sources of micro- and nanoplastics

– Unfolding the rate of release of micro- and nanoplastics from the use of agricultural plastics, as well as the mechanisms involved

– Assessing agricultural plastic-derived pollution in several European farmed soils and linking possible correlations with changes in soil biodiversity

– Understanding the behaviour of micro- and nanoplastics in soils and their transport to connected water ecosystems

– Elucidating long-term impacts of micro- and nanoplastic accumulation on soil properties, functions, biodiversity and fertility

– Developing stakeholder participatory analyses of the costs and benefits of plastic use in agricultural production.

Expected impacts from PAPILLONS:

PAPILLONS develops and disseminates seminal knowledge on the sources, behaviour and impacts of micro- and nanoplastics in soils to inspire and endorse innovation in regulation for soil protection, agricultural practices and agricultural plastic composition, use and management.

We raise awareness of the possible long-term consequences of plastic pollution in soil and inspire actions to safeguard soil health and agricultural sustainability. In particular, we provide background for the implementation of the EU Soil Health Strategy and other important cross-cutting policy initiatives such as the EU Zero Pollution Strategy, the EU Plastic Strategy in the Circular Economy, the EU Biodiversity Strategies, as well as several aspects of the EU Farm to Fork Strategy.

We inspire innovation in industry and endorse the development of new, more environmentally-friendly and safer products. We liaise with farmers and farmer organisations to identify workable solutions for better practices to safeguard the environment, agricultural productivity and sustainability.

PAPILLONS will substantially advance scientific knowledge in the field of environmental assessment of micro -and nanoplastics. We introduce several new techniques and resources for the analysis of these pollutants in the environment and new methods to study their transport, behaviour and interaction with biota. These new resources are set to be openly available to the international research field and expert community and will accelerate the future rate of knowledge building in the field.

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