May 27, 2022 12:54 pm

Humanity has exceeded the planetary limit of plastics and other environmental pollutants

Climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, deforestation, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, nitrogen cycle or chemical pollution are some of the environmental problems that threaten the health of the planet. They are known as planetary boundaries, a concept established in 2009 by the team led by Johan Rockström of Stockholm Resilience Center (SRC).

Once detected, scientists established a series of variables and limits that in theory should not be exceeded to maintain the stability of the Earth for the last 10,000 years. of the nine thresholds identified, four of them have already been overcome, according to a study published in Science in 2015 and directed by Will Steffen, from Australian National University.

The study has made it possible to evaluate for the first time the effect of the cocktail of synthetic chemical products that flood the environment

However, at that time some limits, such as the chemical compounds, could not be quantified due to lack of information. “Now this has changed”, he tells SINC Patricia Villarrubia Gomez, a doctoral student at the SRC of Stockholm University in Sweden and co-author of a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The investigation, led by Linn Persson of the Stockholm Environmental Institute, takes a step forward in the analysis of new entities and chemical contamination, and has made it possible to evaluate for the first time the effect of the cocktail of synthetic chemical products that flood the environment. The results reveal that humanity has exceeded a planetary limit related to environmental pollutants, including plastics.

“We focus on documenting the concern for planetary security as a result of the overproduction and release of synthetic substances such as plastics, pesticides, flame retardants and other industrial chemicals; as well as natural materials that are mobilized as a consequence of human activities”, points out Villarrubia Gómez.

Antibiotics and other pharmaceutical products are also added to them. There are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals on the world market, created by humans with largely unknown effects on the Earth system. Significant volumes of these new entities enter the environment each year.

Persistent compounds in the environment

“Chemical production has increased 50-fold since 1950. triplique again by 2050”, comments the co-author. The production of plastic alone increased by 79% between 2000 and 2015, the team further highlights.

Chemical production has increased 50-fold since 1950. It is projected to triple again by 2050

Patricia Villarrubia Gomez

At present, since some of these contaminants can be extremely persistentThey can be found all over the planet, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Their presence causes negative impacts on Earth systems, including biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles.

“The rate of appearance of these pollutants in the environment far exceeds the ability of governments to assess global and regional risks, much less to control potential problems”, highlights the co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth, from the University of Gothenburg.

Plastics, the biggest polluters

Scientists focused in part on studying plastic pollution for several reasons. “The amount of the total mass of plastics that has been produced already exceeds the total amount by mass of all existing mammals,” says Villarrubia Gómez. Furthermore, the buildings and infrastructure created (which contain plastics and thousands upon thousands of synthetic chemicals) exceed the mass of all existing trees and shrubs, according to a recent study.

“There is more and more scientific evidence pointing to great concern. Today, we know that there are multiple reasons why chemicals and plastics have negative impacts on the health of our planet, and that it is mainly due to the way in which we use them on a day-to-day basis”, emphasizes the scientific.

The negative impacts of these chemical substances occur in all phases of their life cycle, causing problems in each of the processes

The negative impacts of these chemicals are produced in all phases of their Lifecycle, causing problems in each of the processes – from the extraction of raw materials, their transformation and industrialization, through the very use of the products – until they are discarded as garbage.

In addition, in the case of plastics, “we know that there is a direct connection with climate change, since at least 98% of virgin plastics are a product derived from the production of fossil fuels such as gasoline or natural gas, which associated with large CO emissions2 into the atmosphere, as well as the contamination of bodies of water and soil”, he stresses.

Towards a circular economy

With this work, the scientists ask that they take Actions urgently to reduce the damage associated with synthetic chemicals and plastics, controlling and limiting their production. “We believe that we would still be in time to reverse the damage caused if we carry out ambitious and concrete actions,” says Villarrubia Gómez.

We believe that we would still be in time to reverse the damage caused if we carry out ambitious and concrete actions

Patricia Villarrubia Gomez

“When it comes time to act, the researchers are convinced that these results can inform governments and intergovernmental institutions to make decisions based on science”, he adds. Until now, new chemicals, as well as new ways of using existing ones, reach markets at such a speed that they far exceed the ability of government agencies to assess and control related impacts.

Faced with this situation of extreme mismatch between production and evaluation rates, the team suggests that “work towards a real circular economy by changing the design of materials and products, designing new ones that can be recyclable, and improving their safety and sustainability control”, details the author.

They also propose establishing fixed quotas for the production and release of chemicals, “as is being done to try to control climate change through quotas for the emission of greenhouse gases.” For the scientist, “the changes we are creating on our planet will end up having a continuous and cumulative impact on us if we do not carry out urgent actions,” she concludes.

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