#PlasticsTreaty Shorts: The Planetary Boundary with Bethanie Carney Almroth


Theme Music – Pling by Dorian Roy

Bethanie Carney Almroth
We are producing chemicals and plastics mostly from fossil fuels, at ever increasing rates, and we already see disruption of Earth’s systems. We see that plastics are connected to human health impacts. We see that plastics are connected to climate changes. We see that plastics are exacerbating impacts in other sectors on the planet. So this big pulled out overview of the effects of plastics on the planet gives us even more evidence to drive the kind of treaty negotiation that we really need to see where we’re taking ambitious goals and we’re having a global effort to really address this global problem.

Anja Krieger
Welcome to Plastisphere, the podcast on plastics, people, and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. On the way to a global plastics treaty, I bring you this series of short messages from experts around the world. Today’s reflections come from Bethanie Carney Almroth, a professor of ecotoxicology and environmental sciences at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Bethanie is a plastic pollution researcher and one of the scientists’ who researched plastics within the planetary boundaries. She and her colleagues found that the planetary boundary for so-called novel entities, including plastics and chemicals, has been surpassed. We are producing so many new materials and substances that we have left the safe operating space for the future of humanity. That’s why Bethanie really wants to see the plastics treaty negotiations focus on both – plastics and chemicals. Here’s Bethanie:

Bethanie Carney Almroth
We know that plastics can contain more than 10,000 chemicals. These are from production processes, degradation products, contaminants, but there are also a lot of the additives that we’re putting in there to give plastic products the qualities that we want. So this is a pigments, UV stabilizers, softeners, flame retardants and so on. But thousands of these chemicals can also be toxic.

We see impacts both in the environment and in human health. Chemicals in plastics can cause hormone disrupting effects, they can be associated with cancer, they can affect child development, they can affect the neurosystem, brain development. These are really, really important effects that we really need to have a look at.

Part of the problem right now is that there are very few requirements on transparency around chemicals in plastic products. The companies that are making the products, the plastics themselves are not telling us how they’re doing that or what chemicals they’re using in their processes. The producers that are further downstream are each adding chemicals as plastics move through their value chain, and the actors upstream don’t know what those downstream are doing and vice versa. So we end up with products on the market that contain mixtures of thousands of chemicals and no one really has a good idea of what they are.

An added problem here is this group of chemicals that we refer to as NIASes, non intentionally added substances, these might be degradation products, they might be byproducts, they might be contaminants. No one really knows what they are. So these are even harder to work with and to address through regulatory mechanisms.

Part of my research also applies the use of the Planetary Boundaries framework to understand the effects of plastics on a global scale. So this framework addresses human activities and the way that the things that we are doing are disrupting the function of the planet, the Earth systems. This includes climate, nutrient cycling, land and water usage and so on. And what our research is showing is that the rate at which we are producing plastics and producing chemicals far outstrips our ability to understand the impacts of these substances and to mitigate any risks. So we are not able to prevent harm.

If the treaty could address transparency, that would really help us to understand what kinds of chemicals are in products, would help us to know where to study, what to study. It would help us to regulate problematic substances. It maybe would also help us push for a simplification of the market where we have fewer polymers and fewer chemicals.

Anja Krieger
That’s input from Bethanie Carney Almroth from Sweden. If you’d like to learn more about the planetary boundaries, check out the resources at the Stockholm Resilience Center. Of the nine planetary boundaries that have been defined, six are now exceeded. Human activity has introduced novel entities like plastics, changed the climate, the biosphere, the land, water, and nutrient cycles – all to a degree that removes us further and further from the safe conditions in which humanity started to thrive. Air pollution and ocean acidification are still in the safe zone, but worsening. The only planetary boundary we have been able to move away from is the ozone depletion in the upper atmosphere. And why? Because when a ‘hole’ – or a thining – in the ozone layer was discovered in the 1980s, countries from around the world acted quickly. They signed a treaty to phase out the CFCs, the chemicals which were destroying the ozone. Thanks to this global treaty, the Montreal Protocol, the ozone layer was able to recover. Ozone in the upper atmosphere is like a shield, protecting all life on Earth from the sun’s dangerous UV radiation. It’s a success story I think about a lot in the context of plastics – though it also seems much easier to solve. There were fewer products that contained CFCs, and alternatives were readily available. Still my hope is that the plastics treaty follows in the footsteps of this success story.

So much food for thought for today. Thanks Bethanie for this message! And listeners, if you have ideas to share, or a demand for the plastics treaty, please send me your voice message. I will keep my mailbox open until we’ve got a global treaty. For recording instructions, check out the shownotes. You might hear yourself on the Plastisphere if your message is picked for publication. That’s it for now. More in the next few days on the Plastics Treaty Shorts! See you soon!