Every year on June 5, the United Nations Environment Program convenes people from more than 150 countries to participate in World Environment Day, a 50-year-old international observation that celebrates environmental action and the power of governments, businesses and individuals to create a more sustainable world.
Hosted this year by Côte d'Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands, the day is focusing on solutions to plastic pollution. According to event organizers, more than 400 million tons of plastic is produced every year around the globe. An estimated 19 to 23 million tons of plastic find their way into lakes, rivers and seas.
In addition to the waste and environmental challenges posed by plastic, there is also growing concern about “forever chemicals,” known as PFAS, that have been found in some plastics and can be transported and released into the environment with adverse impacts.
Agriculture is a key player in helping the world develop the understanding — and the solutions — in addressing the problems posed by plastics. The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture continues to drive innovation in this area by supporting research projects across the funding portfolio.
Creating Marketable Bioplastics
At Virginia Tech, researchers are exploring a method that combines anaerobic digestion, fermentation and thermal processing to create the plastics, which can be used for a wide variety of consumer products including water bottles and cups. If commercialized, the technology can potentially divert substantial quantities of food waste from waste treatment facilities.
This project — and others supported by NIFA programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, or AFRI — also helps to further develop rural circular economies, where finite resources are not just extracted and consumed but also regenerated in a sustainable manner.
Understanding the Impacts of ‘Forever Chemicals’
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of manufactured chemical compounds that are used in a range of products including nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabric and insecticides.
They are known as “forever chemicals” because of their carbon-fluorine bond that does not break down naturally, and they contaminate many sites across the U.S., which in turn can result in contamination of soils and drinking water.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), exposure to PFAS is linked to increased risk of lowered antibody response, high cholesterol, decreased infant and fetal growth, and increased risk of kidney cancer.
Because of its relevance to U.S. agriculture — PFAS has been found in agricultural products — and its adverse impact on human and animal health, NIFA funds research to:
- monitor the presence of PFAS in agricultural systems
- better understand the chemicals’ toxicity and ecological effects
- reduce consumer exposure
- develop methods to mitigate impact
Several NIFA programs — ranging from the Hatch and Hatch Multistate capacity programs to AFRI and the 1890 Capacity Building Grants (CBG) program — are advancing our understanding of these forever chemicals.
At the University of Idaho, for example, researchers are developing a green, nonthermal plasma-based technology for on-farm water treatment that can remove PFAS from cattle drinking water to prevent milk contamination.
At the University of Texas–Arlington, researchers are exploring a novel method — using a mixture of multiple sorbents made from different waste materials — to remove organic contaminants like PFAS from treated wastewater to facilitate its use for irrigation.
Learn more about NIFA’s work in Climate Change.