On Earth Day, U of M’s Natural Resources School Warns of Microplastics

A survey shows over 90% of Americans are worried about the tiny pieces of plastic debris

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Nearly 92% of Americans are concerned about microplastics harming human health, lakes, and wildlife. That’s according to a recent survey released today by the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences.

The CFANS release says experts have raised concerns about the “impacts of plastics breaking down into our waterways, soils, and food supply.” Microplastics are “extremely small pieces of plastic debris” resulting from the disintegration of consumer products.

The release coincides with Earth Day, whose theme this year is “Planet vs. Plastics,” as declared by the global nonprofit EarthDay.Org.

“Around 8 billion tons of plastic has been produced over the past 60 years, according to [peer-reviewed journal] Science Advances—90.5% of which has not been recycled,” EarthDay.Org states. The organization is calling for a 60% reduction in all plastics production by 2040 “for the sake of human and planetary health.”

Here are some Earth Day details surrounding microplastics from CFANS, which polled a “demographically representative” sample of about 1,000 U.S. adults in its survey last month, conducted by Engine Insights:

Potential risks

  • “Indications show that high levels of microplastics in the soil will impact the growth of some plants as smaller microplastics penetrate roots or lodge in between leaves. There is concern that high concentrations of microplastic could impact our food supply,” according to Joel Tallaksen, research manager at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minnesota. “The key to reducing ag-related microplastics is to properly dispose of used plastics, recycle when possible, and find alternatives to plastic where available.”

Taking responsibility

  • “When asked about perceptions of general beliefs around recycling’s effectiveness, more than one-third of respondents feel that people think recycling is unnecessary or is ineffective, as one of the biggest barriers to reducing plastic waste.”
  • Ninety percent of respondents consider environmental impact when buying products with excessive packaging. But “a majority of respondents would not pay a premium for products that are packaged using biodegradable or recyclable materials.” Gen Z and millennial respondents were the only generations where a majority would “pay more for products created sustainably (51% and 52%).”
  • “Results show that respondents view a fairly even distribution of responsibility between corporations, consumers, government agencies, and others.”

Innovation in plastics-to-fuel recycling

  • CFANS bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor Roger Ruan has “developed an innovative process for turning non-recyclable plastics into fuel.” Whereas traditional plastic-to-fuel operations tend to use coal, propane, or wood, this process uses “superfast and targeted” microwaves. Ruan developed this patented technology with California-based Resynergi, a team of researchers and industry experts.

Ways to reduce plastic consumption

Heidi Roop, CFANS assistant professor and director of the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership, offers individualized solutions in The Climate Action Handbook to reduce overall plastic consumption. For example:

  • Avoid personal care products containing microbeads (“copolymers” in the ingredients).
  • Buy a fine mesh bag for washing synthetic clothing—like polyester or nylon—to trap microplastics before they enter our waterway. When purchasing clothing, look for options made from natural fabrics like cotton or wool.