Research: Microplastics Can Change Soil Properties and Affect Plant Performance
Awards: 1st Place Environmental Science Award, Somers Science Fair 2022
Mentor: Dr. Begley Miller
Research Location: Teatown Lake Reservation
Microplastics are plastic particles smaller than 5 mm that have emerged as contaminants of concern to ecological and human health due to their deleterious effects on wildlife, ability to transport invasive species, and leach harmful chemicals into groundwater and the human body. From 1950 to 2015, approximately 8300 million metric tons of plastic have been produced and have generated about 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste, 79% of which has accumulated in landfills or leaked into the natural environment. The most prominent type of microplastic in soil is fibers that have a shape, size, and flexibility different from most natural components of soils. Harmful chemicals such as endocrine disruptors used in the production of microplastics can adsorb to their surface and enter the environment when introduced to terrestrial ecosystems, and have the potential to disturb nutrient cycling, soil bulk density, aggregation, and water dynamics. Deleterious effects of microplastics on a plant’s soil are expected to stunt the health and growth of a plant. To measure the effects of microplastics on soil and subsequent plant growth, we will add an environmentally relevant amount of microplastic fibers into samples of soil. An incubation period will allow for observation of the interactions between soil systems, such as nutrient cycling, and microplastic addition. After the period, seedlings of a plant will be grown under specific conditions to analyze potential effects of microplastics on the growth and health of the plant. Microplastic fibers present in soil are expected to strongly affect the soil bulk density, aggregation, and water dynamics, and overall stunt the growth of the plant due to the volume of particles restricting access from nutrients and water and the uptake of anthropogenic chemicals from their surface. Further research is necessary to determine the role of microplastics as anthropogenic stressors of terrestrial ecosystems.