Plastic, pollution & nuclear testing lead to the suggestion of a new geological epoch


Plastic trash on beaches is becoming an increasingly large concern / Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)

Humans have changed the planet. That might seem like an obvious statement, considering landscape changes introduced by cities and large-scale farms etc., but human industry has taken it one step farther. Industrial development has left a permanent mark on the planet, and geologists with the Working Group on the Anthropocene, or WGA, want to see that acknowledged.

If you’re not a geology major, you have probably never heard of the International Geological Congress. On their website they call themselves, “undoubtedly the most important activity of the International Union of Geological Sciences.” The 35th International Geological Congress just concluded on September 4 and was held in Cape Town, South Africa.

At this year’s event, WGA scientists presented the idea of an entirely new geological epoch. The Anthropocene Epoch, coined as such by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, is set to become the official designation of the time period said to begin around 1950 and continue into the present day, though some argue we may have been living in it since as early as the 17th century. The name, from the Greek Anthropos, meaning ‘man’ or ‘human being,’ and Kainos, meaning ‘new,’ references the impact of humans on the planet on which we live, an impact that has, according to geologists, drastically altered many significant geological conditions and processes, taking us out of the relative stability of the Holocene.

What is the dividing line between the Holocene —a 12,000-year-old epoch that began with the recession of glaciers and contained the whole development of human kind and this new Anthropocene? We are: pollution, nuclear testing, and all of that plastic we throw away every day are what make the difference. Nuclear testing would automatically seem like the biggest threat to the planet, however, barring a major catastrophe, that might not be the case.

According to Wired magazine, “Plastic pollution is now so common that micro-plastic particles may well leave behind identifiable fossils for future generations.” While we look at potsherds and fossilized skeletons from our ancestors, archaeologists of the future may well come across soda bottles, so-called disposable coffee lids and left-over straws from fast food restaurants.

Micro-plastics are the tiny bits of bigger plastic items that have broken down in their time in the ocean and landfills, or microbeads, the small bits of plastic usually put into cosmetic cleansing products such as exfoliating cleansers, scrubs, and shower or bath gel, and occasionally toothpastes, that wash down the drain unnoticed and make their way into ocean ecosystems. The problem? Fish are eating them and it’s making them,

“Fish reared in different concentrations of micro-plastic particles have reduced hatching rates and display abnormal behaviors,” says marine biologist Oona Lönnstedt in a press release from Uppsala University in Sweden. Lönnstedt’s recent study, published in the journal Science, found that fish had become accustomed to the plastic floating around in their habitat, and now preferred to eat it over their natural food sources.

According to the 5 Gyres Institute, a non-profit organization that focuses on the global crisis of plastic pollution, over 663 species of wildlife are affected by plastic pollution. The institute found an average of 43,000 particles of plastic in only a two kilometer area of Lake Erie. That plastic, is then eaten by fish which are then consumed by us. The institute says micro-plastic particles are being found in bodies of water everywhere.

The institute says this is not just a problem for other animals who might find themselves trapped in a floating six-pack ring. Humans are animals too, and plastic microbeads are toxic. “Plastics attract and store persistent organic pollutants like flame retardants and other industrial chemicals, which have been linked to human health problems—even cancer,” says the institute’s website.

“As marine life eat the plastic, these pollutants work their way up the food chain,” and Humans, being at the top of that food chain, will eventually see the toxic result of everything that is thrown away.

Plastic pollution, in combination with other types of pollution and nuclear testing, have changed the planet permanently, according to WGA scientists. Changes include soil erosion, changes in the chemical makeup of the atmosphere, global warming, and ocean acidification.

To be accepted as a formal epoch, the Anthropocene must be justified scientifically. According to the Working Group on the Anthropocene that means “the ‘geological signal’ currently being produced in strata now forming must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive.” Finding evidence to support this could take two or three years, after which the WGA will submit a formal definition of the Anthropocene to the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, and eventually the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences where it will be ratified as a formal part of the geological timescale.

Since NASA does not predict a Mars landing by humans until at least the 2030s, let alone colonization, Human Beings will simply have to do a better job looking after the planet we have.

While plastic, and its resultant micro-plastics are not the only form of pollution caused by human industry, it is one individuals have more control over than others.


For more information about microbeads and the products you can find them in, check out


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