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Humans have now breached ‘safe planetary boundary’ for pollutants

Scientists in Sweden believe humans have now exceeded a safe, planetary boundary related to the amount of pollutants including plastics that have been leached into the environment.

There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the global market including plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals. Plastic production alone is estimated to have increased by 79 per cent between 2000 and 2015.

These are all wholly novel entities, created by human activities with largely unknown effects on the Earth system. Significant volumes of these novel entities enter the environment each year. 

A team including researchers from Stockholm and Gothenburg Universities have now assessed the impact that the cocktail of synthetic chemicals and other “novel entities” flooding the environment have on the stability of the Earth’s systems.

“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” said study co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez.

“The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals and other novel entities into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”

Co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg said: “The rate at which these pollutants are appearing in the environment far exceeds the capacity of governments to assess global and regional risks, let alone control any potential problems.”

The research follows a 2009 study where nine 'planetary boundaries' were identified that demarcate how the Earth’s systems have managed to remain relatively stable over the last 10,000 years – since the dawn of civilisation.

These boundaries include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity. The researchers quantified the boundaries that influence Earth’s stability, and concluded in 2015 that four boundaries have been breached.

But the boundary for novel entities was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified.

The latest research finds that there are many ways that chemicals and plastics have negative effects on planetary health, from mining, fracking and drilling to extract raw materials to production and waste management.

“Some of these pollutants can be found globally, 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,” Almroth added.

Global production and consumption of novel entities is set to continue to grow. The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice the mass of all living mammals, and roughly 80 per cent of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment.

Plastics contain over 10,000 other chemicals, so their environmental degradation creates new combinations of materials – and unprecedented environmental hazards. Production of plastics is set to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will rise too, despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

“Plastic production, use and waste affects other planetary boundaries as well. This includes climate, via fossil fuel use, land and fresh water systems via use, pollution, physical changes, and spread of invasive species, antibiotic resistance genes and pathogenic microbes in the oceans. Plastics have helped solve some environmental issues owing to their light weight and durability, but overuse and misuse is having devastating impacts on planetary health,” Almroth said. 

The researchers conclude that current increasing trends of chemical production and release put the health of the Earth at risk and called for more action to be taken to reduce the production and release of pollutants. 

“Shifting to a circular economy is really important,” said Gomez. “That means changing materials and products so they can be reused not wasted, designing chemicals and products for recycling, and much better screening of chemicals for their safety and sustainability along their whole impact pathway in the Earth system.”

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