The huge abundance of plastic waste that surrounds us has been well documented; by some estimates, our planet is graced by six million tonnes of it.
According to oceanographer Charles J. Moore, writing in The New York Times: “No scientist, environmentalist, entrepreneur, national or international government agency has yet been able to establish a comprehensive way of recycling the plastic trash that covers our land and inevitably blows and washes down to the sea.”
The lack of credible alternatives to simply dumping our discarded plastic into the ocean means that the pollutant is now playing a role in shaping the future of our geology — the very ground on which we walk. It marks a turning point in the relationship between the human race and planet earth, the beginning of what has been termed the Anthropocene — the epoch in which human activity will start to exert a major influence on Earth’s geology and ecosystems.
The material at the heart of the debate is plastiglomerate — a composite formed of natural debris and sedimentary grains, and held together by molten plastic. The term itself was proposed by Moore, geologist Patricia Corcoran and artist Kelly Jazvac in an attempt to give this new evolution a name.
Plastiglomerates were first noticed by Moore in 2006, when he was surveying plastic washed up on Hawaii’s Kamilo Beach, one of the American state’s most polluted coastal areas. It wasn’t until 2012, though, that the collection and analysis of samples was formalised, with the additional help of Corcoran. As part of their fieldwork, a total of 205 specimens were foraged from 21 sites on a 2,300-foot wide strip, and ranged from the size of a peach pit to that of a large pizza.
Although, at one time, it was suggested that these bundles of solid matter might have been the result of heat generated by the volcanic island’s innumerable lava flows, human campfires were soon identified as the primary factor in their creation.
According to Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University who was involved in the research:
“Most conventional plastic is relatively thin and fragments quickly, but what’s being described here is something that’s going to be even more resistant to the ageing process.”
Could these new formations survive as our future fossils, as a record of our time here on earth? If these geological findings were buried within the rock strata, could they stand the test of time for millions of years?
In the long term, we’ll probably never know. But in the short term, these new findings could allow us to design with new materials that replace the need to use Earth’s depleting natural resources. Perhaps plastiglomerates could become the next stone, paper, ceramics, marble or granite, and in turn halt the production of new of oil-rich plastics. In that sense, our willingness to harness plastiglomerates could potentially follow in the footsteps of other recycling initiatives, such as Precious Plastics, adidas and Parley’s plastic from the ocean shoes and Studio Swine’s Gyrecraft collection.
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