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STOCKHOLM: An international team of scientists says the volume of chemical production, including plastic, has breached a planetary boundary necessary for human survival.

In 2009, researchers identified nine boundaries that defined the Holocene era, stable since the dawn of civilization some 10,000-plus years ago. They include greenhouse gas emissions, the ozone layer, forests, freshwater and biodiversity.

Revisiting their research in 2015, scientists discovered four boundaries had been breached as humans moved into a new, unstable Anthropocene era.

With plastic production increasing 79 percent between 2000 and 2015, mankind has now exceeded a fifth planetary boundary relating to environmental pollutants.
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According to a new study by the 14 scientists, there are an estimated 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals including plastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, chemicals in consumer products, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals.

“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950. This is projected to triple again by 2050,” notes report co-author Patricia Villarubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC).

The total mass of plastics on the planet is now over twice that of all living mammals, and roughly 80 percent of all plastics ever produced remains in the environment with largely unknown effects on the Earth system.

“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,” comments co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg. “We need to be working towards implementing a fixed cap on chemical production and release.”

SRC scientist Sarah Cornell adds that shifting to a circular economy is now really important: “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.”

Offshore partner Maersk continues to support The Ocean Cleanup’s mission to develop and scale technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic. In the last five months it as helped collect 40,273kgs - or 1/2500th of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

“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,” continues Almroth.

Report: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.est.1c04158
 
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