Global chemical and plastic pollution out of control – safe planetary boundary exceeded

Global chemical and plastic pollution out of control - safe planetary boundary exceeded

Photo: yogendras31 / Pixabay


January 22, 2022



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January 22, 2022



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Humanity has exceeded the planetary boundaries, according to a study of pollution from synthetic chemicals, including plastics. Chemical production has increased 50-fold since 1950, and projections show output may triple by 2050.

“We conclude that humanity is currently operating outside the planetary boundary,” said scientists who researched global chemical pollution. The planetary boundary with chemical pollution is the fifth that has been exceeded – in the concept of nine planetary limits that mustn’t be exceeded if we want to preserve the planet as we know it.

The pace of pollution exceeds the global capacity for assessment and monitoring

The study published in the scientific journal Environmental Science and Technology indicated “the safe operating space of the planetary boundary of novel entities is exceeded since annual production and releases are increasing at a pace that outstrips the global capacity for assessment and monitoring.”

The novel entities are chemical compounds that include plastics. They are new in the geological sense, but they could have a large-scale impact on endangering the planet’s ecosystems. They include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, antibiotics, and other pharmaceuticals. The study notes they are all completely novel entities created by human activities, and that some have unknown ecosystem effects.

Chemicals out of control

The study found production growth and the release of large quantities of new chemicals with different risk potentials exceeds the ability of governments to conduct assessments and monitoring on the level of safety. Therefore, scientists recommend an urgent reduction in the production and use of chemical compounds. In other words, humanity has lost control of the products it created.

There is an overcapacity for both assessment and monitoring

The research team reports plastic production alone increased by 79% between 2000 and 2015. The total mass of plastic is almost twice the total mass of all mammals on the planet. It is everywhere – from the ocean floor to the peaks of the Himalayas, while approximately 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment, the scientists pointed out.

The total mass of plastic double exceeds the total mass of all mammals on the planet

Since the middle of the twentieth century, chemical production increased 50 times. The study suggests output would be tripled by 2050 at the current pace.

Currently, there are about 350,000 types of chemicals registered for use, of which only a part has been safety assessed.

Planetary boundaries

According to the scientific concept of planetary boundaries, there are nine of them “that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization.” In 2009, scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Center identified the said key processes, which regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s system.

Exceeding the limits increases the risk of irreversible changes in the environment

Global chemical and plastic pollution out of control - safe planetary boundary exceeded
Photo: Planetary boundaries (SRC)

“The scientists proposed quantitative planetary boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come. Crossing these boundaries increases the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes. Since then the planetary boundaries framework has generated enormous interest within science, policy, and practice,” the concept reads. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also rely on it.

Humanity has crossed planetary boundaries in five segments

The planetary boundary of chemical pollution (novel entities) is the fifth that scientists claim has been exceeded. The first four were global warming, destruction of wild habitats, loss of biodiversity, and excessive pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus.

The limits for ocean acidity, aerosol discharges into the atmosphere, changes in water use, and land use abuses have not yet been exceeded, which does not mean they are not interdependent with other processes that upset the planetary balance.

Scientists suggest regulation

The planet will continue to rotate and revolve around the Sun, but ecosystems and biodiversity are unable to recover fast enough given the pace and amount of pollution. That would roughly mean that humans brought themselves and the living planet to the brink of ruin. Or, in scientific terms, they crossed planetary boundaries.

However, it is possible to stop the chemical pollution processes. The study points out better risk management, monitoring, and reduction of harmful production and release of chemicals are needed to prevent excesses and return pollution to levels that would not be entirely out of control.

It is necessary to regulate all processes related to plastics and chemicals

Strong regulation of all processes related to plastics and chemicals is also needed. An initiative has been started to form a global science-policy body on chemicals and waste that would monitor and control the production and application of chemicals and plastics, and thus control pollution. Akin to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for greenhouse gas emission policy.

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