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

“The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals and other novel entities into the environment is not consistent with staying within the safe operating space for humanity,” says co-author Linn Persson, Affiliated Researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

There are an estimated 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. These are all 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.

“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,” says co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg.

The research fills an important gap in analysis of “planetary boundaries”. In 2009, an international team of researchers identified nine planetary boundaries that demarcate the remarkably stable state Earth has remained within for 10 000 years – since the dawn of civilization. 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. However, the boundary for novel entities was one of two boundaries that remained unquantified. This new research advances the discussion on this boundary.

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% of all plastics ever produced remain in the environment. Production of plastics is projected to increase and predictions indicate that the release of plastic pollution to the environment will also rise despite huge efforts in many countries to reduce waste.

“Plastic production, use and waste affects other planetary boundaries as well,” says Carney Almroth. “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 are having devastating impacts on planetary health.”

The researchers conclude that current increasing trends of chemical production and release put the health of the Earth system at risk. The authors call for actions to reduce the production and release of pollutants.

Press contacts

Owen Gaffney, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University
owen.gaffney@su.se
+46 73 460 4833

Annika Flensburg, Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI)
annika.flensburg@sei.org
+46 73 901 6011

Publication

The paper “Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities ” was published by Environmental Science & Technology on 18 January 2022.

The full paper is available on request through the ACS communications office: newsroom@acs.org

Graphics and other materials are available here .