Earth’s planetary safety limit for pollutants – including plastics – exceeded

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The updated Planetary Boundaries framework (2022) showing 5 boundary breaches, now including “new entities”. Credit: Stockholm Resilience Centre/Azote

First published assessment of planetary boundary related to “new entities”.

For the first time, an international team of researchers has assessed the impact on the stability of the Earth system of the cocktail of synthetic chemicals and other “new entities” flooding the environment. The 14 scientists conclude in the scientific journal Science and technology that humanity has exceeded a planetary limit related to environmental pollutants, including plastics.

“The production of chemicals has increased 50 times since 1950. It is expected to triple again by 2050,” says co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez of the Stockholm Resilience Center at Stockholm University. Plastic production alone increased by 79% between 2000 and 2015, the team reports.

“The rate at which societies produce and release new chemicals and other new entities into the environment is not compatible with remaining in a safe operating space for humanity,” says Villarubia Gómez.

There are approximately 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market. These include plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. They are all entirely new entities, created by human activities with largely unknown effects on the Earth system. Significant volumes of these new entities enter the environment every year.

“The rate at which these pollutants appear in the environment far exceeds the ability of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control potential problems,” says co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg .

The research fills an important gap in the analysis of ‘planetary boundaries’.

In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that delineate the remarkably stable state the Earth has remained in for 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilization. These limits include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, fresh water and biodiversity. Researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries had been crossed. But the limit of new entities was one of two limits that remained unquantified. This new research goes even further.

Researchers say chemicals and plastics have many ways to negatively affect planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and management garbage.

“Some of these pollutants can be found around the world, from the Arctic to Antarctica, and can be extremely persistent. We have overwhelming evidence of negative impacts on Earth systems, including biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles says Carney Almroth.

Global production and consumption of new entities are expected to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now more than twice the mass of all living mammals, and around 80% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Plastics contain more than 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental risks. The production of plastics is expected to increase and forecasts indicate that releases of plastic pollution to the environment will also increase, despite considerable efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

“The production, use and waste of plastic also affects other planetary boundaries. This includes the climate, through the use of fossil fuels, land and freshwater systems through the use, pollution, physical changes and the spread of invasive species, antibiotic resistance genes and disease-causing microbes in the oceans Plastics have helped solve some environmental problems due to their light weight and durability, but their overuse and misuse has devastating effects on planetary health,” says Carney Almroth.

The researchers conclude that the current increasing trends in the production and release of chemicals endanger the health of the Earth system. The authors call for actions to reduce the production and release of pollutants.

“We need to work towards putting in place a hard cap on the production and release of chemicals,” says Carney Almroth.

“And moving to a circular economy is really important. This means changing materials and products so they can be reused and not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and better screening of chemicals for their safety and durability along their journey. impact in the Earth system”, explains Villarubia Gómez.

Reference: “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities” January 18, 2022, Environmental sciences and technologiesy.
DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c04158

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