Quantcast

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

Individual standing in Hurricane Harvey flooding and damage. Jill Carlson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Allegra Kirkland, Jeremy Deaton, Molly Taft, Mina Lee and Josh Landis

Climate change is already here. It's not something that can simply be ignored by cable news or dismissed by sitting U.S. senators in a Twitter joke. Nor is it a fantastical scenario like The Day After Tomorrow or 2012 that starts with a single crack in the Arctic ice shelf or earthquake tearing through Los Angeles, and results, a few weeks or years later, in the end of life on Earth as we know it.

Read More Show Less
A pregnant woman works out in front of the skyline of London. SHansche / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Air pollution particles that a pregnant woman inhales have the potential to travel through the lungs and breach the fetal side of the placenta, indicating that unborn babies are exposed to black carbon from motor vehicles and fuel burning, according to a study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored

Teen activist Greta Thunberg delivered a talking-to to members of Congress Tuesday during a meeting of the Senate Climate Change Task Force after politicians praised her and other youth activists for their efforts and asked their advice on how to fight climate change.

Read More Show Less
Ten feet of water flooded 20 percent of this Minot, North Dakota neighborhood in June 2011. DVIDSHUB / CC BY 2.0

By Jared Brey

When Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle last October, it killed at least 43 people, caused an estimated $25 billion in damage and destroyed thousands of homes.

Read More Show Less
A protestor holds up her hand covered with fake oil during a demonstration on the U.C. Berkeley campus in May 2010. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The University of California system will dump all of its investments from fossil fuels, as the Associated Press reported. The university system controls over $84 billion between its pension fund and its endowment. However, the announcement about its investments is not aimed to please activists.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Forest fire continues to blaze in Indonesesia on Sept. 18. WAHYUDI / AFP / Getty Images

Nearly 200 people have been arrested in Indonesia over their possible connections to the massive wildfires raging in the nation's forest, officials said this week.

Read More Show Less

By Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

World leaders have a formidable task: setting a course to save our future. The extreme weather made more frequent and severe by climate change is here. This spring, devastating cyclones impacted 3 million people in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Record heatwaves are hitting Europe and other regions — this July was the hottest month in modern record globally. Much of India is again suffering severe drought.

Read More Show Less
Covering Climate Now / YouTube screenshot

By Mark Hertsgaard

The United Nations Secretary General says that he is counting on public pressure to compel governments to take much stronger action against what he calls the climate change "emergency."

Read More Show Less