“Permanence of the Disposable”: Of Man and Plastiglomerate

By John Patrick Caytiles

An unfortunate trail of plastic pollution — plastiglomerate is poised to be a poignant marker of human existence.

If we compress the entirety of Earth’s history into a 24-hour clock, humans would not enter the scene until a minute and some seconds before midnight.

In just a few quick strides of the second hand, we have made a lot of changes in our environment and modified it to suit our needs. We used tools, flattened terrains, built structures and came up with new materials. But on the bowels of all these ‘innovation’ lies an obscure by-product.

Plastiglomerate.

Noticed in 2006 by oceanographer Charles Moore during a survey of plastic pollution washed up on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, these melded masses of rock and plastic would eventually be under a more thorough academic probe by 2012. Mutual intrigue from Moore’s talk drove Patricia Corcoran, geologist, and Kelly Jazvac, artist, to team up and fly to the Hawaiian shore to see these stones more closely. Over 200 samples were gathered from 21 locations along the vicinity, and they were inspected for the fragments they contain.

In their 2014 paper, Corcoran and Jazvac first referred to these “stones” as plastiglomerate — an aggregate of materials found along the shore bound together and hardened by rock and plastic. Pebbles, sand, marine debris such as corals and shells, plastic products, and wood pieces make up these plastiglomerate samples, which are ultimately sorted into two classifications. In situ types have plastic adhering to the rocks (some seen to be seeping in and filling the rocks’ vesicles), to which the other materials stick over time. Clastic types, on the other hand, are made up of the different materials cemented together by molten plastic. A huge chunk of the polymer found in the samples are plastic “confetti” — little fragments of plastic products. Packaging and containers, with lids and bottle caps, are in abundance, as well as fishing-related products, such as plastic nets and fishing lines.

Most of the fragments could have a source from anywhere in the world, but they end up being deposited by ocean currents along the shore, making Kamilo Beach one of the unfortunate sinks of plastic pollution. While nature brought most of these pieces together, the research points to human activities as the likely reason why they clumped into plastiglomerate. Moore first suspected that they are a consequence of the volcanic activity in the island, but lava flows from the nearby Kilauea have not reached the beach for the past century. Interviews with the locals revealed that they set plastics on fire as a means of garbage disposal. And with a beach littered with plastic confetti, campers cannot really avoid setting up bonfires without melting the plastic pieces.

This study by Corcoran and Jazvac (hopefully a first among the many succeeding investigations on these curious stones) could have possibly given the informal anthropocene epoch its characteristic marker in the rock record. Anthropocene is the name given to the unofficial, but nevertheless gaining traction, epoch proposed way back in 2000. It is a polarizing topic in geosciences as experts have different takes on its onset, and even name. But they do agree in one thing: that the anthropocene is a time when humans became very influential and became key players in the planet’s systems. The non-biodegradable nature of the plastic components, coupled with the rock fragments that contribute to most of its bulk density give plastiglomerate the potential to be preserved in the rock record. In fact, the largest of the in situ types was found 15 centimeters below the surface, buried under sediments and vegetation. With its man-made materials, man-driven formation, and promising longevity, plastiglomerate could survive long years of burial and serve as an emblem of the lasting impacts that humanity has on this planet.

Samples from Kamilo Beach have been curated and presented in various exhibitions worldwide. But one needs not travel to these museums in order to get a glimpse of man’s ironic masterpiece. Given the current extent of plastic pollution that we face, it is very much possible that plastiglomerate can be locally sourced in so many areas around the globe. They could be made of different plastic derivatives, have caught other natural debris, have clung to different rock types, and have been a product of different processes involving searing temperatures. But despite these differences, if we look at the bigger scheme, the truth stands still: plastiglomerate is a very real consequence of solid waste mismanagement that we have for ages. Beyond the academic babble and battle on anthropocene, this is what plastiglomerate means to those outside the field: another product of a long-standing problem that we have largely ignored since its boom. Plastic has grown exponentially in production, most of them destined for single use. They end up in streets, in rivers, and oceans, broken into smaller and smaller pieces tiny enough to be swallowed by the livestock and float in the air. Several trash-gutted animals later, and here is another tangled mess that confronts us of our unsustainable ways. While sea birds cannot squawk for decades of their belly filled with man made waste, plastiglomerate can tell the (hopefully better) distant future of the mishaps of our time that led to its existence.

Here’s the thing about time: the life expectancy for humans is a mere instant compared to Earth’s lengthy history. I dare say this could be a possible reason why it is hard for us to think long-term. “[T]he permanence of the disposable,” Jazvac talks of plastiglomerate in an interview. Something about the long life of single-use plastics speaks about the influence of human life. A difference though, is that human life is not disposable. Plastiglomerate may mark us in the strata, but may our steps moving forward from this ultimately define humanity’s minutes on Earth’s ticking clock.

References:

ASAP Science. (2012). The Evolution of Life on Earth [Video]. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2_6cqa2cP4&ab_channel=AsapSCIENCE.

Corcoran, P., Moore, C., & Jazvac, K. (2014). An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record. GSA Today, 24(6), 4–8. https://doi.org/10.1130

Nuwer, R. (2014). Future Fossils: Plastic Stone. The New York Times. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/10/science/earth/future-fossils-plastic-stone.html.

Parker, L. (2019). The world’s plastic pollution crisis explained. National Geographic. Retrieved 5 February 2021, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/habitats/plastic-pollution.

Russo, C. (2014). Plastiglomerate: The New And Horrible Way Humans Are Leaving Their Mark On The Planet. Huffpost. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/plastiglomerate_n_5496062.

Valentine, B. (2015). Plastiglomerate, the Anthropocene’s New Stone. Hyperallergic. Retrieved 3 February 2021, from https://hyperallergic.com/249396/plastiglomerate-the-anthropocenes-new-stone.

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