Welcome to Planet Plastic
A new study warns that Earth will be buried by increasing layers of plastic waste due to human activity.
Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Fast forward nearly 50 years from when those memorable (and often-quoted, to the point of cliche, I know) lines from The Graduate were uttered and ... yeah. There's definitely been a future in plastics. Great? That's another story.
We are a species that has loved our plastic. And while the miracle material has paved the way for many innovations, we can't stop mindlessly churning it out at prodigious rates for stupid uses – and in doing so we're changing the surface of the planet in ways that will be hard to reverse.
Now a new study from an international team of scientists examines the evidence and suggests that indeed, the surface of the planet is being noticeably altered by the production of seemingly eternal man-made materials, resulting in the dawn of the "Age of Plastic."
"Plastics were more or less unknown to our grandparents, when they were children. But now, they are indispensable to our lives," says Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology from the University of Leicester's Department of Geology. "They're everywhere – wrapping our food, being containers for our water and milk, providing cartons for eggs and yoghurt and chocolate, keeping our medicines sterile. They now make up most of the clothes that we wear, too."
"Plastics are also pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor – and can be fossilized into the far future," Zalasiewicz continues. "We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years. If all the plastic made in the last few decades was clingfilm, 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 explains that these synthetic polymers have such a woefully enduring impact on the planet's geology because they are inert and durable to a fault. Because of that, when plastics litter the landscape – which they all too often tend to do – they become a part of the soil and often wind their way to the sea.
"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." says one of the researchers, Dr. Matt Edgeworth from the School of Archaeology and Ancient History.
Aside from the ever-vexing plastic that comes from single-use items and packaging in general, plastic microbeads are one of the more worrisome causes for concern.
Colin Waters from the British Geological Survey, a co-author in the study, says. "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."
"Once buried," Zalasiewicz adds, "being so hard-wearing, plastics have a good chance to be fossilized – and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future. The age of plastic may really last for ages."