Environment · Environmental health · Human rights · Pollution

A Plastic Planet

Plastic planet

In a study published in Anthropocene[1], researchers from the University of Leicester found that the surface of our planet (a closed eco-system) is being significantly altered by man-made materials. As a result, according to professor Jan Zalasiewicz, the planet has entered the “Age of Plastic.”

Professor Zalasiewicz noted that: “Plastics were more or less unknown to our grandparents, when they were children. But now, they are indispensible to our lives. They’re everywhere — wrapping our food, being containers for our water and milk, providing cartons for eggs and yoghourt and chocolate, keeping our medicines sterile. They now make up most of the clothes that we wear, too.


Plastics are also pretty well everywhere on Earth, from mountain tops to the deep ocean floor — and can be fossilized into the far future. 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. With current trends of production, there will be the equivalent of several more such layers by mid-century.” (Emphasis added)

Plastic are a man-made invention and require the use of oil by-products known as hydrocarbon gas liquids (“HGL”) in their production. In fact, in 2010, 190 million barrels of HGL, or 2.7% of total US oil consumption, was used to make plastic products in the US. Additional oil products are used to carry these plastic products to the end consumer…you! And because plastic loses some of its chemical properties when it is recycled, new batches of plastic products can only use 10% of old products, meaning that 90% of plastic does not get recycled.

Watch a video on the manufacture of plastic.

Plastic takes a very, very long time to degrade and decompose. Different types of plastic degrade in different time frames. In fact, though the average time for a plastic bottle to degrade is 450 years (or 18 generations), some bottles will take up to 1,000 years (or 40 generations).

Once discarded, sometimes and more often these days on the ground, plastic can travel thousands of miles. Discarded plastic has created floating islands in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that are twice the size of the state of Texas. This doesn’t include plastic items that have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and affected our ocean’s bottom.

tires under ocean

In addition to Professor Zalasiewicz, the study was undertaken by Professor Mark Williams and Ph.D. student Yasmin Yonan from the University’s Department of Geology, as well as archaeologist Dr. Matt Edgeworth.

Commenting on the study, study co-author Colin Waters from the British Geological Survey added: “We have become accustomed to living amongst plastic refuse, but it is the ‘unseen’ contribution of plastic microbeads from cosmetics and toothpaste or the artificial fibres washed from our clothes that are increasingly accumulating on sea and lake beds and perhaps have the greatest potential for leaving a lasting legacy in the geological record.”

We all have a carbon footprint on the planet so long as we are alive. What have you done to lower yours? How about carrying a refillable water bottle instead of purchasing single use water bottles? How about drinking your coffee at your favorite coffee shop from a ceramic mug or from your own refillable coffee mug? Being “present” enough to lower your carbon footprint does not necessarily require great “sacrifices.” What can you do to go from over-consumerism to simple consumerism?


  1. Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N. Waters, Juliana Ivar do Sul, Patricia L. Corcoran, Anthony D. Barnosky, Alejandro Cearreta, Matt Edgeworth, Agnieszka Gałuszka, Catherine Jeandel, Reinhold Leinfelder, J.R. McNeill, Will Steffen, Colin Summerhayes, Michael Wagreich, Mark Williams, Alexander P. Wolfe, Yasmin Yonan.The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the AnthropoceneAnthropocene, 2016; DOI:1016/j.ancene.2016.01.002




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