Plastics in Soils with Dr. Markus Flury


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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

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Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. Markus Flury. Markus is a professor of soil physics and betozome hydrology. He joined WSU in the Crop and Soil Sciences Department in 1997 after a post-doc at the University of California at Riverside. His research program focuses on water flow and transport of contaminates in soils. He recently started to work on plastic pollution of soils and potential alternatives, such as the use of biodegradable plastic mulch films. He teaches graduate soil physics and hydrology courses. Hello Markus.

Dr. Markus Flury: Hello Drew

Drew Lyon: So, we hear a lot about plastic pollution of the ocean, but you’re working on plastics in terrestrial systems, such as soils. Could you tell us a little more about plastic pollutions in terrestrial environments?

Dr. Markus Flury: Yes. Certainly. I’m glad to. So, we hear a lot about plastic pollution in the oceans as you’ve said and almost every day in the newspaper you can read something about plastics in the ocean and how it effects marine life. Now, indeed there is an enormous amount of plastic that is dumped into the ocean every year. And we are actually estimating, to just give you kind of a perspective of that, that every minute of every day of every year, we dump about one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean. So that’s every minute one truck goes into the ocean of plastic waste. So that amounts to 8 million tons of plastic dumped into the ocean every year. And the problem there is that we don’t get that plastic back out. It’s very difficult to remove the plastic, of course, from the ocean. So, we know there is an enormous amount of plastic in the ocean and it’s really a global environmental problem. Now recently we have found that actually the amount of plastic that is dumped into the terrestrial environment, so it’s soils, forests, and range lands, is probably also about the same amount that is dumped into the ocean. So, we don’t have exact numbers for terrestrial systems because it’s a little bit more difficult to measure the plastic that is dumped into soils, but the estimates actually point to the fact that we also pollute our terrestrial ecosystems in the same amount as we pollute the oceans.

Drew Lyon: That’s a large number and we don’t have as much terrestrial land as we do ocean. So, that’s a pretty, when you consider that it’s about a quarter of the land covers terrestrial verses three quarters an ocean, if I remember this correctly. So, that’s a lot of plastic we are putting into our soils.

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah. And it’s not only in agricultural soils which produce food, but it also recently has been discovered that we have in remote areas, you know, in National Parks, for instance in the US that we have plastic that is polluting systems in the National Parks and even in the Arctic, plastic has been found on glaciers. So, we find it actually everywhere.

Drew Lyon: How does the plastic end up in our soils? How does it get there? I know plastic just kind of gets poured into the ocean but what about for land areas?

Dr. Markus Flury: Yes. Yeah so the ocean, it’s kind of easy to understand that you just have the plastic from people that people throw plastic away and then it just ends up in the ocean. For land, there are many different sources of how plastic actually can end up in terrestrial systems. So, first of all you just throw away plastics, right, if you just throw away plastics accidentally then that plastic will just end up somewhere in the environment. And just consider when you drive along a highway how much plastic is actually littering the sides of the highways and that plastic then can be transferred through winds or water to nearby soils or forests right and it says there. And accidental dumping or throwing away plastic, that’s one of the big sources of plastics in our soils. And then it can be blown away from landfills. If we throw away plastics it goes into landfills oftentimes, right, and you have winds that blow plastic away. Plastic is very light so it’s easy to be picked up by the winds and then carried along. And another source of plastic is that we use a lot of plastics directly in our soils. So just think about agriculture where we have plastic films, we have greenhouses that are often covered with plastics and then those plastics, although they are removed oftentimes after they have been used, it’s very difficult to remove everything after usage and sometimes plastic breaks apart into smaller pieces so they cannot be removed anymore. So the direct use of plastics on our soils will lead to accumulation of plastics over time. And then you also have plastic, we have recently found that we have plastic in drinking water and in the rivers, with water used for irrigation so that plastic can then transfer from irrigation or flooding into the soils. So, there are multiple sources that actually bring plastics into the soils. And as I mentioned earlier, for National Parks and remote areas that you would not expect to have any plastics. This is just wind transport of smaller plastic pieces over large distances that then over time can accumulate in soils.

Drew Lyon: And I think I heard a NPR story here not too long ago about plastic rain. So, it’s just dropping out of the air and winding up all around the globe, I believe.

Dr. Markus Flury: Right, yeah. So it can really distribute globally because it’s very light, particularly if it’s in small pieces. Small plastic pieces are very light and be suspended in the atmosphere for a very, very long time so then globally spread, basically.

Drew Lyon: So what happens with all this plastic, essentially, that ends up in our soils?

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah so this is a very good question because plastics have been manufactured to be very resistant to degradation and that’s why we use it in the first place, right. We make plastics so that we can use them for a long time. And so, you should think about plastics, actually, we can say we live in a plastic age because we use so many products off of plastic. Just think about the car. How many plastics is inside the car? And that material is made to be very resistant for degradation because we don’t want to have these materials break down and this is a good thing for the plastic, of course, but if the plastic ends up in the environment, it’s a bad thing because then the plastic will just stay there for a very long time and it cannot degrade. So, the microorganisms are not able to break down those plastic molecules because they are foreign to them, they’ve never seen these types of molecules, they are man-made, and so these plastics will accumulate over time. And that is what we have seen in the ocean. You know if you dump the garbage truck of plastic into the ocean, it just accumulates and then it becomes a problem after some time we too much of the plastic. And the same thing happens in the soil. So, we have enormous problems with the accumulation of plastics in landfills, right? We cannot degrade those materials and it’s the same thing that will happen in the environment as well, that we accumulate it over time and potentially could get to levels where it could harm the health of our soils or the organisms that live in the soils.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Now you have recently worked with a PhD student and plant physiologist Karen Sanguinet in our department on experiments to look at plant uptake of plastics. Can you tell us more about your experiments and findings? Do plants take up plastics?

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah that’s an interesting question. You know, so since we recently discovered that there is quite a lot of plastics that is in our soils, there is the concern that those plastics could potentially harm organisms. So, bacteria or earthworms, for instance, but also plants, right? So, plants will interact with plastics if they come into contact with the plastic either above the ground or in the soil. So, one of the concerns with plastic, particularly with small plastic pieces is that they could be taken up by the plants roots and then transfer, for instance, into the fruits or the grain of the plants and then we would eat them, right, and then there is a human health concern. So, we did some studies to look at how plastic particles have interreacted with the roots and so we teamed up with Karen Sanguinet and the graduate student who then looked at plastic microscopically and see how they interacted with roots. We used wheat and we used Arabidopsis and check the interaction of the roots. What we found is that the roots actually will not directly pick up those particles, it depends a little bit on the size, but they will certainly associate with the root surface and can accumulate at the root surfaces of plants. So that’s a potential concern, of course, for root crops. We don’t know whether it will harm the roots, for instance in the growth development. This is still an active area of research and certainly of repeat interest for agriculture and also for human health or consumption probes.

Drew Lyon: Okay, that will be very interesting to figure out because I imagine some people might be concerned if they found out that the plastics were finding their way into the plants that we eat, perhaps, directly.

Dr. Markus Flury: Right.

Drew Lyon: So it is good that you didn’t actually find that it is being taken up, but it sounds like still more research needs to be done.

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah, so this is a very young research field. You know, we haven’t really worked on these things for a long time. But it’s very important that we look at this issue and see how plastics interact with terrestrial systems and organisms and know the mechanisms of how that actually can work.

Drew Lyon: So how does this drive your work with biodegradable plastic mulch films? So do these types of plastics break down to the point where they wouldn’t be a concern like typical plastic?

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah that’s another very good question, Drew. One alternative, you know, for the plastic problem is to replace the plastics that we currently use with what we call biodegradable plastics. Biodegradable plastics are plastics that would degrade, they are designed to degrade in soil, so if they end up in the soil then microorganisms would be able to metabolize those plastics into CO2 and biomass so that the plastic would basically go away. So this is a very promising alternative for the use of plastics, not for every plastic, but for a large portion of the plastics. So, we are doing research and looking at the potential replacement of some of the plastics with biodegradable plastics, particularly plastics that are designed to be used in soils like agricultural plastics are very promising to be replaced with biodegradable plastics. And we are doing more research on that to see how well those plastics perform and then how well they degrade in soils, so this is a very active research area at the moment as well. You may have heard, for instance, that there are certain bans on plastic in certain states, types of plastic bags are banned in Hawaii, for instance, in California, in the state of Washington. We will also put the ban on that and in a couple of years I think it will be effective. So, there is a potential that we can’t replace some of the biodegradable plastics that would hopefully prevent the pollution of not only terrestrial but also marine environments.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, very interesting that the marriage of plastic science and soil science here, which I found very interesting. Thank you for sharing this information with us today, Markus.

Dr. Markus Flury: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s –( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.