An expedition into the era of human influence

By Kristian Syberg, lecturer of environmental hazards

Geologists of the future will find plastic all over our planet.

The transition from one era to another does not happen every day, mildly spoken. Despite of this it is exactly what we experience in our own life time, the transition from holocene to anthropocene. A part of the definition of an era is that it has its own special print in the geological deposits, that settle in that particular period. The most significant print made in the anthropocene is from human activity, hence the term. If a geologist 10.000 years from now will work his way through the various sediments, he will in other words be able to define our new era by investigation where human activity is deposited.

A shell of plastic

One of the things our future geologist will find is plastic. Where ever he or she may search there will be plastic. It will form a shell around the globe. Not a shell completely packed and all-surrounding, but a mosaic of plastic pieces various in size, colour and shape. How can I be so sure about this? Over time I have analysed many samples for micro plastic. We have analysed many samples from Danish waters, the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Victoria and now we are crossing the Pacific Ocean. I have still not seen one single sample without plastic in it! Compared with the results published by my many foreign colleges it is obvious that micro plastic is everywhere. Micro plastic has been found on flowers, in soil, in fresh water, in ice core samples, in sea bed samples from depths of several kilometres and in all locations on the water surface of our planet. In other words we have diffused plastic all over the globe. What is more we have done this since the 1950´s up until now at a rate that takes your breath away, when you think about it.

Plastic is a heritage

That is why our use and disposal of plastic is in many ways a symbol of the anthropocene. This man-made organic matter has changed our material life for ever, but because of our bad waste handling it is also a major part of the environmental heritage we pass on, not only to our children, but to many generations to come.
Here we are now, in the Pacific Ocean on what is the last part of Expedition Plastic. It is quite appropriate that the journey through the anthropocene ends in the largest water mass of all. And even if this ocean may seem boundless the plastic is present everywhere as a print from the anthropocene. Of all samples we have collected so far I have observed plastic in all of them. Not in large quantities like what we probably will see, when we enter the actual plastic soup, but enough to demonstrate that the small plastic bits float in the entire surface of the Pacific Ocean. Small pieces of litter such as some fishing line, a blue piece of hard plastic, a square cm of transparent wrapping etc. All in all like a plastic mosaic on the azure sea.

Kristian Syberg, lecturer of environmental hazards, RUC (Roskilde University Centre)