Pollution and Waste
Chemical pollution and waste are now considered a third global environmental emergency, alongside climate change and the biodiversity crisis (UNEP 2021). While there have been warnings since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 described how the birds were falling silent because of pesticides like DDT, the great ingenuity and creativity of the chemicals industry driven by profit without regard to long-term consequences, sometimes obvious but often hidden or unsuspected, have led to the creation of thousands of man-made chemical substances, many extremely useful in our technological civilization, but which accumulate in the environment and interact in ways that we are far from understanding.
Then there is our linear production-consumption process, where raw materials are extracted from the environment, products manufactured and sold to consumers, either used immediately, as with medications and cosmetics, or during a useful life often shortened by planned obsolescence, and then discarded in the ever-growing accumulations of waste. A recent concern has been for plastics, so useful in many everyday ways, but highly persistent once discarded, often after a single use as with packaging, and now polluting our soil, water and oceans with negative consequences we are only now beginning to discover.
Despite the agreement at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 to minimise the environmental and health effects of chemical pollution, progress has only been made on a few substances that are particularly noxious, such as asbestos, heavy metals, CFCs, endocrine disrupters, and some environmentally persistent pharmaceuticals. Pesticides and herbicides are intended to kill, but their effects can reach far beyond target species. A recent estimate of industrial synthetic chemicals came at 350,000, of which perhaps 69,000 are currently in production. While some may be harmless, the vast majority have unknown impacts on nature and human health, not to mention the interactions between chemicals, and their breakdown products, and many will take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down. There are a few efforts at control, such as the Stockholm Convention on persistent organic pollutants (2004), but regulation is slow and uneven, often absent in less developed countries.
Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are highly profitable, and the chemicals industry generally fights any attempt to regulate them or prohibit their use, keeping information secret to protect intellectual property rights. Plastics have recently emerged as a global concern, and the fossil fuel industry, fearing falling sales, plans to shift investment to plastics production.
Wastes are another significant and related problem, and include synthetic chemicals, smoke, sewage, greenhouse gases, dust, scrap machinery, food waste, e-waste, metals, plastics, glass, paints, worn-out tyres, construction materials, agricultural waste, household garbage, old clothing, packaging, and many others. It is estimated that the world economy now consumes 100 billion tonnes of raw materials a year, with half going to long-lasting products such as infrastructure, cars and machinery, and the rest into food, clothing, plastics and other things thrown away in less than a year. Only about 10 per cent of this waste is recycled.
Chemical pollution was identified as one of the planetary boundaries (Rockström 2009) but there was no way to define where it is and how close we are to exceeding it. We need a global assessment process for chemicals and wastes similar to the IPCC for climate and IPBES for biodiversity, to begin to come to grips with the scale of the problem.
Lawton, Graham (2021). Earth's chemical crisis. New Scientist, 24 July 2021, pp.36-42
Rockström, J., et al. 2009. Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/
United Nations Environment Programme (2021). Making Peace with Nature: A scientific blueprint to tackle the climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies. UNEP: Nairobi. https://www.unep.org/resources/making-peace-nature
Last updated 23 August 2021