Cities, highways, landfills, airports; man’s impact on planet Earth is visual to everyone. Yet there are even more substantial changes we have caused, changes that are predicted to be visible in rock layers in years to come. In the future, these man-made modifications could be seen and dated in the same way we are currently able to date past ages such as ice ages.
Although formal decision by the International Commission on Stratigraphy* is still years away, it is widely considered among scientists that we have moved into a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene (anthropo = human). This implies that human modifications on the planet have been so significant they have resulted in a new geological phase such as the Holocene (the current official phase, which began when the climate started to warm up following the ice age, 11,500 years ago).
As the journalist Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times discusses in his blog, the big question now is not if this “age of man” has already begun; but rather when it began. What are the key alterations we have made to the planet that will be visible for millennia to come? While there are many propositions, one popular starting point could be around 1950: the time when nuclear weapon detonations began alongside the rise of the mass production of plastics.
Leaving the nuclear weapons and the global spreading of carbon isotopes aside, let’s concentrate on plastics.
Why plastics? Plastic is everywhere. From the trash you see on the ground, to sea bird bodies full of bottle tops, there is an island of debris, mainly of plastic, that is the size of a continent in the Pacific Ocean. Plastic is so common that it can even be found in the Arctic, trapped inside forming ice, having drifting there with the tides. Therefore, it would not be too surprising if future geologists estimate the start of this new epoch by the rise of a “plastic world”, particularly microplastics.
Much of our plastic waste is in the form of microplastics: small plastic particles industrially produced or originating from larger fragmented pieces of plastic. They are used in a wide variety of products including some toothpaste, exfoliating creams and other cosmetics, which usually end up in marine environments through wastewater (see a paper on this). Microplastics also end up being eaten by fauna and cumulate in the food chain, which is particularly harmful as they also absorb pollutants from the water.
In addition, microplastics have a greater “surface area to volume” ratio than other debris, meaning they can absorb a relatively large amount of various environmental toxins. As it is extremely difficult to collect microplastics, it is vital to focus on the sources of pollution, both consumption and production based.
Worryingly, the production and demand of plastics is still on the rise, as shown in this World Watch article. Some national policies have been put into practice to decrease the use of this material such as the green tax reform in Portugal that charges consumers for the use of plastic bags and additionally the imposition of a small charge on plastic bag use in the United States in many shops and supermarkets. Other initiatives provide alternatives to plastic by promoting the recycling and reusing of more biodegradable forms of plastic. In São Paulo, Brazil, from April 5th 2015 onwards, supermarkets can no longer provide white, non-recyclable plastic bags to customers. A new range of green and grey bags made from renewable raw material such as sugarcane must be used instead; fines also apply – for business and customers alike.
More broadly, plastics are at the core of a broader issue of waste management and waste disposal, which is in turn linked to both production and consumption patterns. In the current globalized nature of both, only a global strategy will suffice. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which chart a course for sustainable development over the next 15 years, present us with a good opportunity to raise awareness that can lead to a transformation of both global and national policies.
In the proposed SDGs (see a well-structured interactive by The Guardian here), plastic waste is addressed in at least two of the 17 goals, specifically goals 12 and 14. The aim of both goals is to, respectively, ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns and to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. One of the specific targets under the latter is to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds by 2025. Plastics are a good place to start.
But where should we end up? There is great potential regarding the SDGs and decreasing our waste generation by substantial amounts in global, local and individual levels. But is that enough? In the age of the Anthropocene, could the Age of Man also be a story of radical change and reform towards a sustainable world as it has been about degradation? I hope the thought that our actions are so significant that they have resulted in a new geological epoch will empower us to work to also make a significant difference – one that not only looks back but also looks forward to a new “Age of Sustainability”.
*Intern at the World Centre for Sustainable Development (RIO+ Centre)
**It is the largest and oldest constituent scientific body in the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) focused on setting global standards for the fundamental scale for expressing the history of the Earth.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or their Member States.