The ultimate fate of waste plastic is hazy – but we know future geologists will find traces of a fleeting era written in the stones. Welcome to the Plasticene
ONE million years from now, geologists exploring our planet’s concrete-coated crust will uncover strange signs of civilisations past. “Look at this,” one will exclaim, cracking open a rock to reveal a thin black disc covered in tiny ridges. “It’s a fossil from the Plasticene age.”
Our addiction to plastics, combined with a reticence to recycle, means the stuff is already leaving its mark on our planet’s geology. Of the 300 million tonnes of plastics produced annually, about a third is chucked away soon after use. Much is buried in landfill where it will probably remain, but a huge amount ends up in the oceans.
More than five trillion pieces of plastic, collectively weighing nearly 269,000 tonnes, are floating in the world’s oceans, causing damage throughout the food chain, new research has found.
The ocean isn’t large enough to avoid marine life encounters with debris.Here is what we all end up doing;
Plastic’s devastating effect on marine mammals was first observed in the late 1970s, when scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.
These curious, playful seals would often play with fragments of plastic netting or packing straps, catching their necks in the webbing. The plastic harness can constrict the seal’s movements, killing the seal through starvation, exhaustion, or infection from deep wounds caused by the tightening material. While diving for food, both seals and whales can get caught in translucent nets and drown. In the fall of 1982, a humpback whale tangled in 50 to 100 feet of net washed up on a Cape Cod beach. It was starving and its ribs were showing. It died within a couple of hours.
Along Florida’s coasts, brown pelicans diving for fish sometimes dive for the bait on a fisherman’s line. Cutting the bird loose only makes the problem worse, as the pelican gets its wings and feet tangled in the line, or gets snagged onto a tree.
Plastic soda rings, “baggies,” styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world’s approximately 250 species of seabirds.
What You Can Do
Marine plastic pollution shows us that we cannot really throw anything “away.” Reducing, reusing, and recycling is the best way to stem the tide of plastics into our oceans. Here are some specific steps you can take to cut down on your use and protect our oceans.
1. Cut disposable plastics out of your routine. Simple alternatives include bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.
3. Take Responsibility. Whether you represent yourself, a business, or a government, know how much you are contributing to the problem of plastic pollution.
4. Stop throwing your wastes everywhere.