Environment Agency faces legal action over microplastics in agriculture

The campaign group, ‘Fighting Dirty’, has initiated court proceedings against the Environment Agency (EA) and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs. This action challenges the lack of testing for plastic contaminants and persistent hazardous substances in sewage sludge spread on farmland.

MicroplasticsIn legal papers submitted to the Administrative Court at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, the group contends that the Environment Agency (EA) acted in violation of the law by renouncing a prior pledge to establish regulations concerning harmful sewage sludge by 2023 - an issue that the EA has previously acknowledged as a threat to human health.

The EA oversees the application of sludge – a mixture of treated sewage solids, industrial waste, and runoff from surface water – which water companies sell to farmers for use as fertiliser on agricultural land. Regulations governing the application of sewage sludge have remained unchanged since 1989.

A report commissioned by the EA in 2017, uncovered by Greenpeace, found that English crops were contaminated with dangerous persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – including dioxins, furans and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – at “levels that may present risk to human health”.

The EA also unveiled a strategy in 2020 promoting secure and sustainable sludge utilisation. They strongly emphasised that the "do nothing option is unacceptable" and pledged to implement regulations within the Environmental Permitting Regime by mid-2023, which would involve testing and regulation of sludge.

However, in an updated strategy published in August 2023, this deadline was removed, and no further timescale was provided for action.

The legal action has been taken by campaign group ‘Fighting Dirty’ – founded in October 2023 – whose objective is to fight pollution using the legal system to challenge the pre-existing mechanisms that enable harm to be caused to the environment. The group is supported by Leigh Day Solicitors and Matrix Chambers in legal proceedings.

Georgia Elliot-Smith, who successfully campaigned to force waste incineration plants to pay for their emissions, said: "By removing the deadline for introducing regulations on the safe and sustainable use of sludge, the EA has effectively reverted to a ‘do nothing’ position – something they originally stated was unacceptable to protect human and environmental health.

“Farmers are unknowingly being sold potentially highly toxic material to spread on their land, poisoning our soil, watercourses, and food, and we have no hope of a date when this situation will be resolved. It is unacceptable to be left in limbo like this.”

Commenting on the legal case, campaigner and journalist, George Monbiot added: “It strikes me as a classic example of an issue that almost everyone has ignored, which turns out to be more important than many of those over which we obsess.

“The total failure of effective regulation in this case suggests that there is little ecological difference between dumping raw sewage into rivers – as water companies routinely and disgracefully do – and spreading contaminated sludge over farmland. Worse in fact, as the sludge poisons the soil before seeping into waterways. The rules are at fault. By failing to update them, and by suppressing and ignoring the evidence of its own officials, the government is in breach of its legal obligations to protect the living world and human health.”

Microplastics in UK farmland

Research from the University of Cardiff and the University of Manchester uncovered that UK soils have the highest levels of microplastic contamination across all European countries, with rates as high as 500 - 1000 microplastic particles per square metre of agricultural land annually.

According to the same study, microplastics represent a notable hazard to wildlife, given their ease of ingestion and their potential to transport contaminants, harmful chemicals, and dangerous pathogens. This situation has the potential to affect the entire food chain.

Commenting on the impact of microplastics, Steve Hynd, Policy Manager at City to Sea said: “Microplastics are the hidden environmental crisis of our age. They’re buried metres deep in Antarctic sea ice cores, they’re found within the guts of marine animals inhabiting the deepest ocean trenches, and they’re found on the peaks of the highest mountains.

“Increasingly we know that they’re in the air we breathe, the food we eat and liquids we drink. The idea that we are spreading them directly onto farmland without regulation or control is horrifying. It represents a dereliction of duty from those that are meant to be regulating this sector.”

The Environment Agency declined to comment on the legal proceedings when approached by Resource.