Anja Krieger

Why chemicals and plastics pose a risk to our future

Humanity has released and spread numerous new substances into the environment. Since they were rarely or never involved in evolutionary processes, organisms have not been able to develop strategies to cope with these xenobiotics. These foreign substances can be poisonous, persistent, highly mobile and can affect our health and the Earth system.

The nine planetary boundaries according to Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Center
The nine planetary boundaries according to Rockström, Stockholm Resilience Center
Julia Blenn / Helmholtz-Klima-Initiative

It is estimated that there are 350,000 chemicals on the global market, ranging from solvents and pesticides to medicines. Plastics, which are artificial materials made of synthetic polymers, are also produced in chemical processes and contain plasticizers, dyes and flame retardants. Some of these substances that humanity has introduced into the environment can have an impact on the health of humans and other living beings, for example because they can cause cancer or have the potential to disturb the hormone system.

In the planetary boundaries concept, chemicals and plastics are counted among the substances that are foreign to nature and the Earth system, substances to which living things have been unable to adapt through evolution. These substances, which are part of a collective category called “novel entities” that also includes radioactive waste, heavy metals and rare earths, have only become widely distributed in the environment through human activity.

For the developer of the planetary boundaries concept, Johan Rockström, the novel entities are one of the three most critical factors for our future, along with biodiversity loss and climate change.* Researchers determined in 2022 that the planetary boundary for novel entities has already been exceeded for chemicals and plastics and that humanity is now living outside safe limits.

Diversity and quantity of chemicals makes them uncontrollable

Chemical production worldwide has increased 50-fold since 1950. The production of plastics rose nearly 80 percent from 2000 to 2015. Strong growth in the market for plastics and chemicals is expected to continue in the years ahead, even as the weight of all the plastic on Earth already exceeds that of all animals on land and in the oceans combined.

Large amounts of plastics and chemicals are being released – usually unintentionally or due to poor management – into the environment. An estimated 79 percent of the plastic produced since 1950 is now either in landfills or in oceans, rivers, lakes, soil and the air.

How can we get back to the safe zone?

In order to return levels of foreign substances to the safe side of the planetary boundary as soon as possible, their release into the environment must be drastically reduced: for example, by reducing the amount of waste and by safely expanding the circular economy. It may be necessary to phase out especially troublesome substances and switch to alternatives, or to set production limits.

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