Pollution is a chemical compound, nutrient, or any form of energy that is out of place.

Very few places on Earth are untouched by pollution. Chemical compounds manufactured by human beings occur in the snow on the tops of the tallest mountain peaks and in the atmosphere beyond to the bottom of Earth’s deepest abyssal trenches. All forms of life are affected by pollution in some way. Some types of pollution, such as light and noise pollution, which involve energy rather than matter, may be easier to manage and control than the chemicals that contribute to various types of air, water, and land pollution.

Nevertheless, the problem of pollution, in all of its forms, is perhaps the most solvable of Earth’s 21st-century environmental challenges, because it largely rests with us (human beings) in our pursuit to create useful products and different ways to power our machines. Focusing our efforts on limiting and eliminating the production of harmful pollutants will go a long way to assist us in cleaning up the pollutants already affecting Earth’s biosphere. Learn about the causes and effects of different types of pollution and about some of the strategies and solutions that can limit their release into the environment and their production.

By 2050, plastic production is expected to make up 15% of global carbon emissions.

Source: Jiajia Zheng and Sangwon Suh, Strategies to reduce the global carbon footprint of plastics.

Know the Problems

When we think of pollution, we often envision chemicals that foul the air and water and refuse that piles up in landfills or litters roadsides. One can certainly argue that air, water, and land pollution are foremost in our minds, because they directly affect the health and well-being of human beings and other forms of life, including those we depend on for our food. Other, less-apparent forms of pollution are also important. Noise pollution, light pollution, and thermal pollution affect how human beings and other animals behave and experience the world and often where they decide to live. Nevertheless, the type of pollution that has attracted the most attention in recent years is plastic pollution, in part because of its ability to pervade our air and water, as well as our land. Learn more about the different types of pollution.

Waste We Create

in 2016

242 million tonnes

The number of tonnes of plastic waste
the world generated.

in 2016

2.01 billion tonnes

Global annual waste generation is expected to jump to 3.4 billion tonnes over the next 30 years.

Source: World Bank, What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050, September 2018.

Know the Causes

Although pollution can come from natural sources (such as volcanoes, which can release particulates and dangerous gases into the air), most of the world’s pollution comes from the activities of human beings. Over the last 100 years or so, rapid human population growth along with the universal desire to improve one’s standard of living has led to the manufacture of innumerable materials and chemicals, many of which do not break down easily in the environment. In addition, the fuels we use to power our machines leave residues that coat machine parts and waste gases that linger in the atmosphere. Earlier in human history, the effects of pollution were localized. Now, however, the activities of so many people are affecting the stocks of clean air, water, and other common-pool resources we often take for granted. Learn more about the causes of the different forms of pollution.

It is estimated that at least 5.25 trillion individual plastic particles weighing roughly 244,000 tonnes (269,000 tons) were floating on or near the surface of the oceans.

Know the Solutions

Finding solutions to Earth’s pollution problems seems daunting, but we should remember that the international community has already rallied to phase out chemicals that had been depleting Earth’s ozone layer, and the ozone layer has begun to recover. Positive change is always possible, even at the global scale. Also, there are several philosophical approaches and practical steps available to help us create a cleaner world. Read more about other solutions already underway to deal with pollution.

Take Action

There is no planet B.

Do your part to change our course in history. Learn more about how you can work to solve Earth’s environmental challenges in your home and in your community.

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