Researchers say we're living in a new epoch defined by the proliferation of plastic on land and in our oceans. Photo by nanD_Phanuwat/Shutterstock
LEICESTER, England, Jan. 27 (UPI) -- We're living in the "Age of Plastic" -- at least according to researchers at the University of Leicester.
A number of scientists have proffered that Earth has entered a new epoch, a new division of geologic time characterized by mankind's growing influence the planet.
Scientists at Leicester recently weighed in on whether or not such an epoch should be formalized in the scientific literature. In a new paper -- published in the journal Anthropocene -- scientists argue that the evidence is rather clear: Earth is becoming increasingly altered by long-lasting man-made materials.
As plastics have become inseparable from our daily lives, they have also become entwined in Earth's geological, ecological and biological processes.
"Plastics are also pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor -- and can be fossilized into the far future," researcher Jan Zalasiewicz, a professor of palaeobiology at Leicester, said in a press release. "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," Zalasiewicz said. "With current trends of production, there will be the equivalent of several more such layers by mid-century."
Because plastics are inert and not easily degraded, they have become a permanent part of the planet's geology -- embedded in the soil and littered throughout the world's oceans.
It is increasingly ingested by sea life, killing plankton, fish and whales. One recent study determined that by 2050, 99 percent of seabirds will have ingested plastic.
Much of the waste is hidden from view, flooding the oceans in form of microplastics. One study found the cosmetic industry alone is responsible for 80 million tons of microplastic waste entering the sea.
The long-term ecological effects of plastic may not yet be clear. But it is clear that plastic isn't going anywhere.
Scientists at Leicester say that from a geological and archaeological perspective, its presence warrants a newly named epoch.
"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," said Matt Edgeworth, a researcher fellow with Leicester's School of Archaeology and Ancient History. "Plastics make excellent stratigraphic markers."
"Once buried, being so hard-wearing, plastics have a good chance to be fossilized -- and leave a signal of the ultimate convenience material for many million years into the future," added Zalasiewicz. "The age of plastic may really last for ages."