Many of the world’s most widely used chemicals transgress one or more of the nine planetary boundaries. An international team of scientists has said that if we are to tackle this crisis, chemists at all levels must work to reposition chemistry as a sustainability science.1
The Planetary Frontiers Framework, developed between 2009 and 2015, describes nine anthropogenic threats to Earth’s critical systems and attempts to identify safe operating spaces within them. Many of the control variables defining these limits are chemical entities, with the aim of measuring and limiting the introduction of these entities into the environment.
However, no control variable was set for the limits of “new entities in the environment”, and the group raised concerns that such notices would persist, and that there would be no sort of action the framework was supposed to inspire. They highlight a recent report suggesting the release of plastic into the environment as one of the possible criteria for the limits of “new entities in the environment”; The proposal that, if accepted, will see that the boundary has already been crossed.2 Another report evaluated nearly 500 chemicals with respect to seven planetary limits, and found that most of them exceeded at least one of the safe operating limits thresholds.3
The group, led by Stephen Matlin of Imperial College London in the UK, stresses that the sustainability of any given product should be evaluated comprehensively, not on the basis of individual issues. Individual factors such as deriving a product from a renewable source, manufacturing based on green chemistry principles or recycling after use, are not sufficient to call a product sustainable if planetary boundaries are still being violated somewhere within the system.
Many basic chemistry practices will need to be re-evaluated. In organic chemistry, the high dependence on hydrocarbon-related compounds as feedstocks for synthesis is clearly problematic, and alternatives must be pursued. In plastic, it will be necessary to redesign and invent new structures. Then there is the issue of stewardship of the elements; Not only for those materials with low levels of abundance or restricted distribution – such as lithium, a vital resource for current battery technology – but also for those abundant, whose stewardship needs to focus on recycling or disposal with minimal environmental damage.
As a science of transmutation of matter, many of the successes of chemistry to date have come at the expense of the environment and the stability of Earth’s vital systems. Scientists conclude that in the future, research must maintain an awareness of planetary boundaries and the biogeochemical flows that threaten them, and industry must commit to using all available tools to avoid further excesses.
1. SA Matlin and othersAnd the Chem. Sciences.2022, DOI: 10.1039 / d2sc03603g
2. El Pearson and othersAnd the environment. Sciences. Technol.2022, 561510 (DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.1c04158)
3 – P Tellos, J. Perez – Ramirez, J. Guillen – Guzalpez, Green Chem.2021, 239881 (DOI: 10.1039 / d1gc02623b)
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