The world is entering the Age of Plastic.
Each year, between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the Earth’s oceans. The midpoint estimate is enough to cover 34 Manhattans, and is on par with how much plastic was produced in 1961.
Publishing in the journal Anthropocene, scientists from the Univ. of Leicester and the Anthropocene Working Group have published a study purporting that by the mid-century the Earth’s oceans and land will be buried in an increasing layer of plastic.
“Plastics were more or less unknown to our grandparents, when they were children,” said Jan Zalasiewicz, who teaches palaeobiology at the Univ. of Leicester. “But now, they are indispensable to our lives. They’re everywhere—wrapping our food, being containers for our water and milk, providing cartons for eggs and yogurt and chocolate, keeping our medicine sterile. They now make up most of the clothes that we wear, too.”
Plastics are abundant, whether as macroscopic fragments or the small microbeads found in soaps. Their presence is an indicator of the Anthropocene, as their remnants are an identifiable geological strata component.
In fact, according to Zalasiewicz, if all the plastic produced in the last few decades was plastic wrap, there would be enough to layer the whole Earth.
“These are dispersed by both physical and biological processes, not least via the food chain and the ‘fecal express’ route from surface to sea floor. Plastics are already widely dispersed in sedimentary deposits, and their amount seems likely to grow several-fold over the next few decades. They will continue to be input into the sedimentary cycle over coming millennia as temporary stores—landfill sites—are eroded,” the researchers wrote.
According to the researchers, buried plastics have a good chance of becoming fossilized. These “technofossils” can persist millions of years into the future, leaving a remnant reminder of a human convenience.
“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 fibers 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,” said co-author Colin Water, of the British Geological Survey.
The Anthropocene Working Group will continue to gather evidence of the Anthropocene Epoch in 2016, which may help determine if the new time unit should be formalized.