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What is Phytoremediation?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Phytoremediation is a form of environmental cleanup which involves the use of plants and fungi. While phytoremediation can be slow and it does have some problems, it does carry some distinct advantages, and scientists are constantly refining it in the hopes of creating more solutions to the global issue of pollution. You may have seen some examples of phytoremediation in your community, ranging from the planting of fast-growing groundcover to prevent topsoil loss to the use of genetically engineered plants to pull heavy metals out of the group.

The concept of phytoremediation is actually fairly old, although people only realized the potential implications in the late 20th century. Farmers have been rotating crops for centuries in a form of phytoremediation, preventing the buildup of potentially hazardous substances in the soil and enriching the soil with plants like beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil to make it available to other plants. These practices gave birth to a wider practice of phytoremediation, which involves the use of plants to actively pull pollutants out of the ground and water.

There are a number of forms of phytoremediation. Many plants are capable of uptaking pollutants and storing them, meaning that people can plant trees or plants and then remove them after they have pulled the pollutants out of the soil. Plants can also be used to control the spread of pollution. Some plants will actively metabolize pollutants, breaking them down into harmless substances, while others stimulate the growth of microbes which can metabolize pollutants.

Incidentally, microbes are also used in environmental remediation. Several companies have actually genetically engineered microbes which eat things like oil and nuclear waste, and new extremophilic organisms are constantly being discovered in a range of environments. This suggests that bacteria may at some point be able to perform the bulk of environmental cleanup, playing the same role they have been playing for millennia.

There are, of course, some disadvantages to phytoremediation. It takes longer than some environmental remediation techniques, requiring patience and in some cases the installation of warning signage for future generations. Phytoremediation also comes with the risk of introducing dangerous substances into the food supply, as the plants used could be eaten or they could serve as a food source for food animals if the polluted site is not carefully controlled. Some plants also pollute as they intake pollutants, expressing various substances which can be carried by the water or wind.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is phytoremediation?

Phytoremediation is an innovative green technology that uses plants to clean up contaminated environments. By absorbing pollutants through their roots and sometimes even breaking them down into less harmful substances, plants can remediate soils, water, and air, making it a cost-effective and eco-friendly alternative to traditional decontamination methods.

How does phytoremediation work?

Plants used in phytoremediation take up contaminants through their roots from soil or water. Some plants, known as hyperaccumulators, store these toxins in their tissues, which can then be harvested and disposed of safely. Other plants can actually degrade or transform the pollutants into less toxic forms through natural metabolic processes.

What types of contaminants can be addressed by phytoremediation?

Phytoremediation can target a wide range of contaminants, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic, organic compounds such as pesticides and petroleum hydrocarbons, and even radioactive materials. The specific type of contaminant that can be remediated depends on the plant species and the nature of the pollution.

What are the benefits of using phytoremediation over traditional methods?

Phytoremediation offers several advantages over conventional cleanup techniques. It's generally less expensive, less disruptive to the environment, and can improve the aesthetics of a site. Additionally, it can help restore ecological balance by providing habitat for wildlife and reducing soil erosion, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Are there any limitations to phytoremediation?

While phytoremediation is a promising technology, it does have limitations. It is typically slower than traditional methods and may not be suitable for all types of contamination, especially at sites with high levels of pollutants that could be toxic to the plants themselves. Moreover, it's not always effective for contaminants that are deeply buried or in groundwater.

Can phytoremediation be used for large-scale environmental cleanups?

Phytoremediation has been successfully used in large-scale cleanups, but its feasibility depends on the extent and type of contamination. Large areas with low to moderate contamination levels are ideal. For instance, the Chernobyl site has seen the use of phytoremediation to reduce radioactive contamination, demonstrating its potential for large-scale applications.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By OeKc05 — On Nov 19, 2011

Last spring, some of the soil in my community was in danger of eroding because of the heavy rain we had experienced. City officials were worried, because the area had been so overdeveloped. Condos and apartments had taken over, and the vegetation had been stripped in many areas.

To prevent erosion, the city began planting creeping groundcover. These plants spread like a virus and populated the area with greenery and blossoms.

They used creeping phlox and Irish moss, along with a fast-growing grass. The phlox was covered in little pink flowers for a few weeks, and the Irish moss was a mass of green leaves and white blossoms.

In addition to holding down the soil, the plants did a lot to beautify the region. I was glad that the city decided to plant them.

By kylee07drg — On Nov 18, 2011

My dad has always used phytoremediation in his vegetable garden. He rotates his crops out to avoid sapping the soil of nutrients, and he has seen good results from this technique.

Though he plants some of the same vegetables each year, he moves them around. Where he planted corn the previous year, he currently grows tomatoes. Where the okra flourished last year, watermelons have taken over.

Everything he has ever grown has flourished. He has nice, juicy fruits and veggies because of his phytoremediation method.

To me, things taste better when they are not grown in the same spot each year. Has anyone else ever noticed this?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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