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Safety limits for human-caused pollution now exceeded

Since 1950, the amount of chemicals produced by humans has risen 50-fold — a figure projected to triple by 2050.

For the first time, researchers have announced the limits that synthetic pollutants can be safely forced into the environment by human hands — and that we’ve already broken through them.

In 2009, a team of researchers laid out nine total planetary boundaries that helped to define and differentiate the different elements that make up Earth’s natural stability. These boundaries included elements like the status of the ozone layer, biodiversity statistics and the health of Earth’s freshwater and forests, all of which have contributed to a stable and healthy planet since the start of recorded history.

While researchers would conclude a few years later that at least four of those boundaries have been breached, at least one them never got properly defined at all: the novel entities boundary.

Novel entities are synthetic compounds and chemicals, like plastics and pesticides, that are manufactured and released into the environment solely by humans. Experts have long understood these compounds can dangerously pollute natural environments, but the threshold for how much our planet can take has never been set.

That changed on Tuesday, however, when an international team of researchers revealed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that they’ve determined where that threshold is — and that we’ve exceeded it.

“There has been a 50-fold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950,” said Patricia Villarubia-Gómez from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University in a statement accompanying the study. “This is projected to triple again by 2050.”

She added, “The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals and other novel entities into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”

This is due to the sheer number of manmade chemicals on the world market today. Estimates say there are roughly 350,000 different types of manufactured chemicals circulating the globe, many of which are thrust into the environment with very little known about their long-term ecological consequences.

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Few offenders from that list are as troubling as plastics. Researchers say the total mass of all plastics produced is now double the mass of all living mammals on Earth, about 80% of which has ended up in the natural environment. Plastics also contain about 10,000 other chemicals, leaving many to fear how many unforeseen and unprecedent hazards can be directly attributed to plastic pollution alone.

What’s worse, according to scientists, is that this trend does not seem to be slowing down. Despite well-publicized efforts around the globe to cut back on plastic production and other nonrecyclable materials, plastics increased by 79% between 2000 and 2015 alone, and it’s set to go even higher in the years to come.

Study co-author Bethanie Carney Almroth from the University of Gothenburg says plastics also have the capacity to negatively impact other planetary boundaries outside the one for novel entities, making it one of the most damaging pollutants on Earth.

“Plastic production, use and waste affects other planetary boundaries as well,” Carney Almroth said. “This includes climate, via fossil fuel use, land and freshwater 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 is having devastating impacts on planetary health.”

Ultimately, researchers say this study should help to hammer home for many just how badly we need a better plan for managing things like plastics. Earth could be placed in extreme harm’s way if the situation does not soon improve, leaving many to suggest that things like a cap on plastic production and a more recycle-friendly economy will be invaluable as we look to the future.

“And shifting to a circular economy is really important,” says Villarubia Gómez. “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.”

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Piles of bags of plastic and other waste.