Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Plastics in Fossil Record: ‘This Is What Our Generations Will Be Remembered for’

Oceans
Discarded and polluting plastic garbage on sand collected from beach in North East England, UK. Monty Rakusen / Cultura / Getty Images

When future archaeologists attempt to dig below the earth's surface to understand contemporary civilization, they will likely find one ubiquitous substance: plastic.


The first detailed study of plastic accumulation in the sediment layer found that its presence there has increased exponentially following the end of World War II, The Guardian reported.

"Our love of plastic is being left behind in our fossil record," study leader Jennifer Brandon of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego told The Guardian. "It is bad for the animals that live at the bottom of the ocean: coral reefs, mussels, oysters and so on. But the fact that it is getting into our fossil record is more of an existential question. We all learn in school about the stone age, the bronze age and iron age—is this going to be known as the plastic age?" she asked. "It is a scary thing that this is what our generations will be remembered for."

The study, published in Science Advances Wednesday, looked at plastic accumulation in the coastal sediments of California's Santa Barbara Basin between 1834 and 2009. The researchers found that, beginning in 1945, the amount of microplastics doubled every 15 years. By 2010, people were depositing 10 times more plastic in the basin than they had been before World War II, according to a Scripps press release.

Brandon said the findings supported the idea that plastic accumulation could be used to as a sign of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch proposed by scientists that would be defined by the impact of human civilization on the earth. The rise in plastics after the Second World War could be used to date a subcategory of the Anthropocene called "the Great Acceleration," Brandon said.

But the findings don't only impact how we assess human history. They could also have immediate consequences for marine life.

Two thirds of the plastics found by researchers were fibers, Wired reported, which mostly enter the environment by rubbing off synthetic clothing in the wash.

"There's just this steady onslaught of microfibers reaching the bottom of the ocean," Brandon told Wired. "Microfibers for a tiny animal like plankton can act like a rope would for us—they can entangle them, they can get caught in their guts, they can kind of pinch their limbs."

Another problem for animals is that most of the plastic particles Brandon's team found were white, which is the color marine predators often look for when choosing prey. Brandon said it was likely animals were mistaking white microplastics for plankton.

"It's happening and we're not talking about it enough, that's for sure," she said.

Between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the world's oceans every year, according to figures cited in the study, and the amount of plastic in circulation is only projected to increase. Four hundred million tons were manufactured in 2015, and that number is expected to double by 2025, according to Wired. Once plastic particles enter the environment, they tend to stick around.

"They will still be in sediment cores for future civilizations to find them, because except for bacteria it doesn't look like most things can degrade them in any way," University of Michigan eco-toxicologist Allen Burton, who was not involved in the study, told Wired. "They break down into smaller and smaller pieces but they're still inherently, chemically plastic. We'll find them like we find old artifacts."

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pixabay

By Kris Gunnars, BSc

Unhealthy foods play a primary role in many people gaining weight and developing chronic health conditions, more now than ever before.

Read More Show Less
A man pushes his mother in a wheelchair down Ocean Drive in South Beach, Miami on May 19, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. reported more than 55,000 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, in a sign that the outbreak is not letting up as the Fourth of July weekend kicks off.

Read More Show Less
To better understand how people influence the overall health of dolphins, Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute is developing a drone to collect samples from the spray that comes from their blowholes. Ken Y. / CC by 2.0

By Jason Bruck

Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.

Read More Show Less

Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus

On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.

Read More Show Less
Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks. jacqueline / CC by 2.0

By Kelli McGrane

Oat milk is popping up at coffee shops and grocery stores alike, quickly becoming one of the trendiest plant-based milks.

Read More Show Less

"Emissions from pyrotechnic displays are composed of numerous organic compounds as well as metals," a new study reports. Nodar Chernishev / EyeEm / Getty Images

Fireworks have taken a lot of heat recently. In South Dakota, fire experts have said President Trump's plan to hold a fireworks show is dangerous and public health experts have criticized the lack of plans to enforce mask wearing or social distancing. Now, a new study shows that shooting off fireworks at home may expose you and your family to dangerous levels of lead, copper and other toxins.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons. Curtis Palmer / CC by 2.0

By Ashutosh Pandey

Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.

Read More Show Less