Study says human impact has created a plastic planet


According to recent research conducted by the University of Leicester, the Earth’s oceans and lands will be submerged by increasing layers of plastic waste by the mid-century because of human activity. The study, ”The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene,” published in the journal Anthropocene, examines evidence that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch where humans dominate the Earth’s surface geology.

It suggests the planet’s surface is being considerably transformed by the production of long-lasting man-made materials, resulting in the onset of an “Age of Plastic,” a statement from the university said.

Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology, said in a press release: “Plastics are pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor—and can be fossilized into the far future. We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years.

“If all the plastic made in the last few decades was cling film, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth. With current trends of production, there will be the equivalent of several more such layers by mid-century.”

The study suggests plastics have a long term effect on the planet’s geology because they are inert and hard to degrade. As a result, when plastics litter the landscape, they become part of the soil, often ending up in the sea and being consumed by and killing plankton, fish and seabirds.

Plastics can travel thousands of miles, caught up in “great oceanic garbage patches”, or eventually being washed up on distant beaches. Plastics can eventually sink to the sea floor, to become part of the strata of the future.

Matt Edgeworth, one of the study’s experts, said: “It may seem odd to think of plastics as archaeological and geological materials because they are so new, but we increasingly find them as inclusions in recent strata. Plastics make excellent stratigraphic markers.”

In 2016 the Anthropocene Working Group led by Professor Jan Zalasiewicz will gather more evidence on the Anthropocene, which will help inform recommendations on whether this new time unit should be formalized and, if so, how it might be defined and characterized.

Colin Waters from the British Geological Survey, a co-author in the study, added: “We have become accustomed to living amongst plastic refuse, but it is the ‘unseen’ contribution of plastic microbeads from cosmetics and toothpaste or the artificial fibres washed from our clothes that are increasingly accumulating on sea and lake beds and perhaps have the greatest potential for leaving a lasting legacy in the geological record.”