More than 5,000 tons of plastic get into the environment in Switzerland a year, a study has found, with soil more affected than water.
The study was carried out by the Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa) for the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN).
It focused on the seven most used plastics, including PVC and PET, used in packaging, textiles, insulation materials and agricultural films. But it did not consider other plastics, in particular rubber, which is released into the environment from tyre abrasion, a statement released on Friday said.
Soil and water
Researchers followed the path of these plastics to the Swiss environment from production to disposal and developed a model with which these material flows could be calculated. They distinguished between microplastics (smaller than 5 millimeters) and macroplastics (larger than 5 millimeters).
They found 5,120 tons of the seven types of plastic were released into the environment a year, or 0.7% of the total amount of the seven plastics used a year.
The study showed that the amount of plastic that gets into the soil is about 40-times higher than the amount that is discharged into water.
“The main reason for this is littering – the careless throwing away of waste –, which pollutes in particular soils, but also waters, with macroplastics. The cleaning of public spaces allows the collection of a large part of this plastic. Nevertheless, part of it remains lying around,” Empa said in the statement.
“Another significant source of macroplastic in soils is the use of plastic films in agriculture. Macroplastic also reaches the soils through the composting of organic waste that contains plastic.”
Agriculture and the construction industry (such as wear and tear from foils on pipes) are the main sources of microplastics in soil. For water, it’s the washing and wearing of synthetic clothing and cosmetics. But these sources are low compared with those for modelled soil contamination, and wastewater treatments plants filter most of the microplastic out of the water, Empa added.
The federal agency says that plastic contamination of soils should now “be investigated more thoroughly”. In the meantime, recommendations include making consumers, as well as the waste and construction industries more aware about the impact of littering. Soil contamination in farming must also be addressed.
FOEN is currently considering further steps to reduce the environmental impact of plastics, the statement added.