The Future of Fossils

By Rachel Roberts 

762318_52036269There’s no question that plastic pollution is a significant problem in oceans and landfills across the world. Although plastic is convenient and found in almost every aspect of our lives, most plastics do not biodegrade.

Plastics do photodegrade – which means that heat and light break them down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. But it is estimated that a disposable diaper takes about 500 years to photodegrade; a plastic water bottle, about 450 years. And the resultant small plastic particles can still be sucked up or eaten by filter feeders or other small organisms, causing damage to their bodies by poisoning them or leading to deadly blockages.

Scientists have recently begun to study plastic-infused stones. These rocks are formed when plastic melts and fuses together with beach sediment, lava fragments, shells, wood, coral, and other organic debris.

The Geological Society of America has officially named the plastic infused into rocks “plastiglomerates.” Researchers from the GSA reported it is likely that plastiglomerates will serve as a permanent marker of human impact on earth’s geologic record.

791210_26299131According to Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester, England, “Plastics and plastiglomerates might well survive as future fossils. If they are buried within the strata, I don’t see why they can’t persist in some form for millions of years.”

The New York Times has reported that plastiglomerates may represent a new geological era, known as the Anthropocene epoch—a period where human influence has resulted in significant, long-term impacts on the earth’s environment and atmosphere.

Scientists, however, are unable to agree when our current epoch, the Holocene Epoch, which began 12,000 years ago, should end, and when the Anthropocene epoch should begin.

One thing is certain: unless we begin to change some of our government policies and personal behaviors, the impacts we leave on the planet, no matter what Epoch we are in, will be devastating ­— with plastiglomerates as just the beginning.

References:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/oceanography/great-pacific-garbage-patch1.htm

http://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/24/6/article/i1052-5173-24-6-4.htm

http://www.statesman.com/news/news/plastic-stone-might-persist-for-millions-of-years/ngMyZ/

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/10/science/earth/future-fossils-plastic-stone.html?ref=science&_r=0

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/19/plastiglomerate_n_5496062.html

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