Chemical pollution crisis: Scientists demand circular plastics economy for “Earth’s integrity”
31 Jan 2022 --- Chemical pollution has passed the threshold of a stable environment for the first time in 10,000 years, according to new research by the American Chemical Society. The study shows novel entities – that could have large-scale impacts “threatening the integrity of Earth system processes” – are increasing at a pace that outstrips the global capacity for assessment and monitoring.
Much of this pollution is caused by plastic packaging leaking into the ground and sea, say the study authors, who note that toxic chemicals have been discovered as high as Mount Everest and low as the deepest points of the world’s oceans. The authors say chemical production has increased fiftyfold since 1950 and is expected to triple again by 2050.
Bethanie Carney Almroth, an associate professor at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, tells PackagingInsights the findings demonstrate the urgent need for a circular plastics economy.
“Chemicals in plastic packaging materials are among those most often found in the environment. These two factors alone, though interconnected, point to widespread problems,” says Almroth. “And responsibility does – or should – lie with the producer (extended producer responsibility, also known as the producer-pays principle). Therefore, it is imperative that the packaging industry takes responsibility to address these problems.”
No action means danger
Almroth says the findings show the exceedance of the planetary boundaries. “We predict that harm to the environment will increase as we move forward, given the predicted increases in extraction, production, use and mismanagement of waste,” she says.
“There are many studies documenting both the human health impacts of chemicals in packaging materials and the environmental impacts of these materials once they have leaked out from our hands.”
Recently, a slew of studies warning about the dangers of common packaging chemicals like phthalates (plasticizers) and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have encouraged policymakers to ban their use for fear of rising cancer rates and environmental degradation.
How the packaging industry can redress its integral role in this area “is a very complex question,” says Almroth.
The issue is complicated by the fact that there are many examples of plastic packaging reducing food waste, thereby reducing greenhouse emissions. But there are also examples of increased food waste in connection with serving sizes and poor packaging design.
“A push for more seasonal food, less processed food and more locally-grown food would reduce the need for extensive packaging meant to survive and preserve food transportation. More research and more innovation are called for here,” Almroth asserts.
Recently, for example, UK-based startup Notpla began commercializing edible seaweed-based packaging as a cost-competitive replacement for single-use plastics.
Room for hope?
The researchers recommend taking urgent action to reduce the harm associated with exceeding the planetary boundary by reducing the production and releases of novel entities. However, Almroth says while “the usefulness of some chemicals and plastics in our societies cannot be denied, the problems are entirely complex and will require many solutions.”
“We would like to see increased regulations and transparency concerning the use of polymers and chemicals. More knowledge concerning the environmental fate of the materials, leaked at every step of their life cycle, and the chemicals they contain. Producers could be required to monitor better and mitigate these releases,” she explains.
Over 70 financial institutions and businesses recently released a statement urging a legally-binding global treaty on plastics pollution ahead of the UN Environment Assembly 5.2 this year. Signatories warn this is a “critical moment” in forcing a global change.
However, even with urgent measures, the study warns “the persistence of many novel entities and/or their associated effects will continue to pose a threat.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
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