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Botany in a Barbie world is not fantastic

Plants are resilient, but even they are struggling with the increasing presence of microplastics.

According to the words of the “worst song of the nineties”, ‘Barbie Girl’ by Danish dance-pop group Aqua (Andy Greene), “life in plastic, it’s fantastic”. Well, that may be the case in the world of iconic fashion doll Barbie*. In the real world, however, plastic is not usually so highly praised. In fact, plastics** – “a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials that use polymers as a main ingredient …”, mostly “derived from fossil fuel-based chemicals like natural gas or petroleum” – are very much the villains of the peace, and their environmental consequences are anything but fantastic; they’re very real, and rather detrimental to the living world (Laura Parker).

Since these man-made molecular marvels were launched en masse onto a largely unsuspecting world from the 1950s, they have been found everywhere on Earth (Laura Parker). For example, they’ve been reported from otherwise pristine environments such as the Arctic, and plastic bags have been recorded at the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean (Sarah Gibbens).

So omnipresent has plastic become in recent decades there are those who use its dramatic and large-scale appearance and presence on the planet as one of – if not thedefining characteristic of the Anthropocene (Katie Pavid).*** As a long-term resident on Earth, this material has even given rise to its own habitat, the plastisphere (Erik Zettler). As rather long-lasting (Paola Rosa-Aquino, and ‘unnatural’, materials, their role in the ecology of habitats into which they’ve been introduced is a matter of considerable concern and much research interest.

Whilst much-studied is the effect of plastic on animals, they’re not the only biota in any ecosystem, and it is necessary to understand how these human-made materials might affect the biology and ecology of all living things. Being rather homocentric in our view of the natural world an understandable concern is how plastics might affect the plants eaten by humans. And of more concern in that regard isn’t large obvious items such as plastic bags, but so-called microplastics [MPs]. Because of their small size, it’s not easy to tell just by looking if MPs are present in the soil in which crop plants may be grown – either commercially or domestically. Apart from dangers to humans of exposure to, or ingestion of, MPs (Laura Parker), the potential impairment of quality of crops grown in such contaminated soils is cause for concern for all who are entitled to believe that their fresh fruit and veg is beneficial for them.

To that end, Marco Dainelli et al. investigated the effects of MPs on the growth, productivity and fruit quality of tomato [Solanum lycopersicum]. As a widely-consumed member of the Solanaceae, with a high nutritional value for the human diet (Adda Bjarnadottir), tomato is an understandable choice for such work. The team grew the plants in pots with an environmentally-realistic concentration of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) – two of the most prevalent microplastics in soils – throughout the complete crop life cycle.

Although apparently of low or no toxicity during the vegetative stage of tomato growth, both MPs decreased the number of fruits and, in the case of PVC, also their fresh weights. Associated with the decline in fruit production, Dainelli et al. reported marked increases in nickel [Ni] and cadmium [Cd] in the fruit. Both of these elements are heavy metals (Anne Marie Helmenstine), ingestion of which can have serious consequences for human health (World Health Organization). Added to the heavy metal risk there was a decline in the nutritionally valuable lycopene, total soluble solids, and total phenols in the fruit.

Yes, this work needs to be repeated, and broadened to field-scale trials, and other crops, etc., but these results are cause for concern in showing that MPs can not only limit crop productivity but also reduce fruit quality and increase their concentration of certain heavy metals. All of which poses questions about potential health risks for humans of consuming crops grown under conditions of microplastic contamination – and to other animals that might consume the plants (and to the animals that might prey upon them…).

Returning to where this post began, maybe even Barbie is redeemable with news that the doll is being made out of recycled plastic. This move is part of manufacturer Mattel’s “goal of achieving 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials across all of its products and packaging by 2030”. Although that change in practice does not undo any of the downside of use of plastic, it is at least an attempt to reduce the plastic burden on the environment. Perhaps the human race is destined to live in a Barbie world, after all.

* If you want to know more about the global phenomenon of Barbie, this site has more articles than you can shake a stick at. Plus, there’s the 2023 film, straightforwardly-entitled “Barbie” – and for a review thereof, see Peter Bradshaw.

** Memorably defined as “The substrate of advanced capitalism” (p. 348) by Heather Davies.

*** For some sort of balance, it should be noted that other ‘markers’ for the start of the Anthropocene have been proposed, e.g. the rise of radioactive plutonium fallout from nuclear bomb testing (Meera Subramanian; Alexandra Witze). It should also be noted that there is some disquiet at current attempts to define the start of the Anthropocene narrowly and dated to a specific year in the mid-20th century (Erle Ellis).


Amaral-Zettler, L.A., Zettler, E.R. and Mincer, T.J. (2020) “Ecology of the plastisphere,” Nature Reviews. Microbiology, 18(3), pp. 139–151. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-019-0308-0.

Bergmann, M., Collard, F., Fabres, J., Gabrielsen, G.W., Provencher, J.F., Rochman, C.M., van Sebille, E. and Tekman, M.B. (2022) “Plastic pollution in the arctic,” Nature Reviews. Earth & Environment, 3(5), pp. 323–337. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00279-8.

Campanale, C., Massarelli, C., Savino, I., Locaputo, V. and Uricchio, V.F. (2020) “A detailed review study on potential effects of microplastics and additives of concern on human health,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(4), p. 1212. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041212.

Dainelli, M., Pignattelli, S., Bazihizina, N., Falsini, S., Papini, A., Baccelli, I., Mancuso, S., Coppi, A., Castellani, M.B., Colzi, I. and Gonnelli, C. (2023) “Can microplastics threaten plant productivity and fruit quality? Insights from Micro-Tom and Micro-PET/PVC,”The Science of the Total Environment, 895(165119), p. 165119. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.165119.

Genchi, G., Carocci, A., Lauria, G., Sinicropi, M.S. and Catalano, A. (2020) “Nickel: Human health and environmental toxicology,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), p. 679. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17030679.

Kumari, A., Rajput, V.D., Mandzhieva, S.S., Rajput, S., Minkina, T., Kaur, R., Sushkova, S., Kumari, P., Ranjan, A., Kalinitchenko, V.P. and Glinushkin, A.P. (2022) “Microplastic pollution: An emerging threat to terrestrial plants and insights into its remediation strategies,” Plants, 11(3), p. 340. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3390/plants11030340.

Lee, Y., Cho, J., Sohn, J. and Kim, C. (2023) “Health effects of microplastic exposures: Current issues and perspectives in South Korea,” Yonsei Medical Journal, 64(5), p. 301. Available at: https://doi.org/10.3349/ymj.2023.0048.

McCarthy, F.M.G., Patterson, R.T., Head, M.J., Riddick, N.L., Cumming, B.F., Hamilton, P.B., Pisaric, M.F.J., Gushulak, A.C., Leavitt, P.R., Lafond, K.M., Llew-Williams, B., Marshall, M., Heyde, A., Pilkington, P.M., Moraal, J., Boyce, J.I., Nasser, N.A., Walsh, C., Garvie, M., Roberts, S., Rose, N.L., Cundy, A.B., Gaca, P., Milton, A., Hajdas, I., Crann, C.A., Boom, A., Finkelstein, S.A. and McAndrews, J.H. (2023) “The varved succession of Crawford Lake, Milton, Ontario, Canada as a candidate Global boundary Stratotype Section and Point for the Anthropocene series,” The Anthropocene Review, 10(1), pp. 146–176. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/20530196221149281.

Zettler, E.R., Mincer, T.J. and Amaral-Zettler, L.A. (2013) “Life in the ‘plastisphere’: Microbial communities on plastic marine debris,” Environmental Science & Technology, 47(13), pp. 7137–7146. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1021/es401288x.

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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