The Earth’s oceans and lands will be buried by increasing layers of plastic waste by the mid-century because of human activity, according to new research led by the University of Leicester.
The study, published in the journal Anthropocene, examines evidence that we now live in the Anthropocene, an epoch where humans dominate the Earth’s surface geology.
It suggests the planet’s surface is being noticeably altered by the production of long-lasting man-made materials, resulting in the onset of an “Age of Plastic”, a statement from the university said on Wednesday.
Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology, said: “Plastics are pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor – and can be fossilized into the far future. 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 suggests plastics have a long-lasting impact on the planet’s geology because they are inert and hard to degrade. As a result, when plastics litter the landscape, they become part of the soil, often ending up in the sea and being consumed by and killing plankton, fish and seabirds.
Plastics can travel thousands of miles, caught up in “great oceanic garbage patches”, or eventually being washed up on distant beaches. Plastics can eventually sink to the sea floor, to become part of the strata of the future.
Matt Edgeworth, one of the study’s experts, said: “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.”