Dustin Hoffman was both right and wrong in The Graduate. Plastics did prove to be the wave of the future, just not in the way he — and industrialists at the time — intended.
Thanks in large part to Blue Planet II, though it came as no surprise to anyone keeping up with environmental news, we now know that plastics are wrecking the world’s oceans. Our insatiable appetite for plastic, the ultimate in convenience in virtually very product we use, is choking the planet, literally and figuratively.
We’re living in the Anthropocene epoch, that period in time when there is recorded evidence of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, and now science has come up with a new defining term — equally based on empirical, scientific evidence. Humankind evolved through the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age; now, scientists state in a new paper, we’re living in the Plastic Age.
There is more than semantics at play here. Scientists identify and name the world’s epochs based on core samples of minerals found deeply embedded in rocks that have been around for millions of years, in some cases. There’s now evidence, they say, that plastics have become embedded deep in the Earth’s core, where evolutionary scientists — human or otherwise — in the distant future will find them. Plastic pollution has entered the fossil record, researchers say.
Contamination has grown exponentially since 1945, the scientists have found. So the argument — often cited by climate deniers in their campaign against those who blame the climate crisis on human activity — that humans have nothing to do with it is not just disingenuous but dangerous.
The study, the first of its kind, examined layers in sediments off the coast of California for each year
dating back to 1834. (The first plastics, based on a synthetic polymer made from phenol and formaldehyde, was invented in 1907, by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian-born American living in New York state.)
The study was authored by Dr. Jennifer Brandon, an oceanographic biologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California (San Diego), and was published this month in the journal Science Advances. Brandon found that the amount of microscopic plastics in ocean sediments is doubling roughly every 15 years.
Millions of tons of plastic are discarded into the environment every year. They’re broken down into small particles that don’t break down as other biodegradable substances do. Microplastics have been found everywhere from the deepest ocean trenches to mountains in the high Arctic. Humans are believed to consume some 50,000 microplastic particles a year, just through the food we eat and water we drink. The long-term health effects are largely unknown, but microplastics are known to release toxic substances and penetrate human tissue. As David Attenborough showed the world in Blue Planet, consuming plastic is known to harm marine creatures.
“Our love of plastic is being left behind in our fossil record,” Brandon said. “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 the Iron Age. Is this going to be known as the Plastic Age? It is scary to think that this is what our generation will be remembered for.”