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Are agricultural plastic covers a source of plastic debris in soil? A first screening study
Soil  (IF5.841),  Pub Date : 2022-01-19, DOI: 10.5194/soil-8-31-2022
Zacharias Steinmetz, Paul Löffler, Silvia Eichhöfer, Jan David, Katherine Muñoz, Gabriele E. Schaumann

Agricultural plastic covers made from polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) provide increased yields and an improved crop quality. However, such covers are suspected of partially breaking down into smaller debris and thereby contributing to soil pollution with microplastics. To scrutinize this, we randomly sampled 240 topsoil cores (0–5 cm) from eight fields which were covered with fleeces, perforated foils, and plastic mulches for less than 2 years. Samples from the field periphery (50 m perimeter) served as a reference. Visual plastic debris > 2 mm was analyzed by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Smaller, soil-associated plastic debris was dispersed from 50 g of fine soil ( 2 mm) using sodium hexametaphosphate solution and density-separated with saturated NaCl solution. The collected PE, PP, and polystyrene (PS) debris was selectively dissolved in a mixture of 1,2,4-trichlorobenzene and p-xylene at 150 C and quantified by pyrolysis–gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (Py-GC/MS). We counted six PE and PS fragments > 2 mm in two out of eight fields. By contrast, Py-GC/MS detected PE, PP, and PS contents in the fine soil of six fields (6 % of all samples). In three fields, PE levels of 3–35 mg kg−1 were potentially associated with the use of thinner and less durable perforated foils (40 µm thickness). This was slightly more pronounced at field edges where the plastic covers are turned and weighed down. By contrast, 50 µm thick PE films were not shown to emit any plastic debris. PP contents of 5–10 mg kg−1 were restricted to single observations in the field centers of three sites. At one site, we found expanded PS particles > 2 mm that concurred with elevated PS levels (8–19 mg kg−1) in the fine soil. Both PP and PS were distributed indistinctly across sites so that their source remained unresolved. In addition, the extent to which plastic contents of up to 7 mg kg−1 in the field periphery of some sites were attributed to wind drift from the covered fields or from external sources needs to be investigated in future studies. Our results suggest that the short-term use of thicker and more durable plastic covers should be preferred over thinner or perforated films to limit plastic emissions and accumulation in soil.