Plastic Will Be the Shameful Artifact Our Descendants Dig Up

You don’t have to look far to see we’ve descended into the Anthropocene, a period dominated by human impacts on this planet—our moving of mountains and waterways, our corruption of the climate, the traces of nuclear material in the geological record. Add to all that microplastic pollution, an increasingly pervasive threat that’s swirling in the ocean and finding its way to distant corners of the Arctic.

Today in Science Advances, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography report how the Earth itself is tainted with microplastic particles. By taking a core sample of sediments just off the coast of Southern California, the scientists could observe in its layers how plastic concentrations have changed year after year. And exponentially so: Since the 1940s, when plastic production began to take off, microplastic deposition rates have doubled every 15 years. This correlates with both figures on plastic manufacturing and coastal population growth in California, and brings us to a troubling conclusion: As seaside cities continue to boom, so does the amount of microplastic flowing into the sea, tainting whole ecosystems.

The researchers got their sediment samples from something called a box core, essentially a giant cookie cutter that slices down many years’ worth of layers in the seafloor. Back at the lab, they dried each layer and ran the material through filters to isolate the particles, which they counted visually under a microscope and tested chemically to determine the variety of plastic.

William Jones

Interestingly, two thirds of the particles the researchers found were fibers. These are coming largely from synthetic clothing like yoga pants, which slough off fibers in the wash. A wastewater treatment plant processes that water before pumping it out to sea but isn’t equipped to remove all the microfibers. “There’s just this steady onslaught of microfibers reaching the bottom of the ocean,” says Scripps oceanographer Jennifer Brandon, lead author on the new paper. “Microfibers for a tiny animal like plankton can act like a rope would for us—they can entangle them, they can get caught in their guts, they can kind of pinch their limbs.”

In addition, macroplastics like single-use bags float out to sea and bake in the sun, causing them to break into much smaller fragments that then swirl in the water column. Then it’s only a matter of time before ocean organisms ingest the particles—giant larvaceans, for instance, rely on a mucus net to catch tiny prey, a haul now sullied with microplastics. Once they discard their mucus nets, the apparatus sinks to the seafloor, dragging the plastics down as well. And that’s just one way microplastics can move up and down the water column and settle in the mud.

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