We know that the stone-age began some 2.5 million years ago, followed by the bronze-age and then the iron-age. These periods are named based on the artifacts left behind by our early ancestors. If we were to project some 1 million years into the future, what might descendants of ours, future archaeologists, name our own epoch based on the materials we have left behind?
It’s not hard to imagine. They’d call ours the plastic-age.
What began in 1839 with the invention of polystyrene and other semi-synthetics, has grown into a runaway catastrophe in less than 200 years. We’ve created so much plastic, it’s now impossible to ever recycle our way out of it. In fact, we’ve manufactured enough plastic to wrap the whole Earth in a layer of cling film. Think about that image for a minute. On current trends, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.
Plastic has become so much a part of our environment, there’s even a new word for the substance that may one day form part of the geological stratum that marks our own era in the history of the earth.
It’s a human-made substance, a congealed coagulation of sand, organic matter and melted plastics first identified on a beach in Hawaii in 2013 by oceanographer Charles Moore, geologist Patricia Corcoran and artist Kelly Jazvac. A kind of new hybrid stone geologists are now calling a plastiglomerate.
This, along with other manmade materials which are buried in landfill without ever decomposing, will be solidified into a new geological layer such that in times to come, what may one day be excavated will be our technofossils.
But before that happens, much ecological damage will have been wreaked by plastics polluting our oceans, suffocating our marine life. Even more alarming, we know now that plastics break down not just into toxic micro-plastics, but into nano-plastics which are able to cross the blood-brain barrier when we consume them via the seafood we eat.
So that’s the bad news.
THE GOOD NEWS!
Much as human beings have made some incredibly short-sighted, stupid decisions, there are equally incredible humans out there working hard to undo the mess we’ve got ourselves into.
Here are 3 awesome initiatives we’re excited about:
PLASTIC SURGERY FOR ROADS
Road repairs cost South Africa an estimated $3.4 billion per year. In August this year, Shisalanga Construction became the first company in South Africa to lay a section of road that’s partly plastic, in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province on the east coast.
It has now repaved more than 400 meters of the road in Cliffdale, on the outskirts of Durban, using asphalt made with the equivalent of almost 40,000 recycled two-litre plastic milk bottles.
The roads are expected to last much longer as the added plastic makes the repair material more durable and water resistant, so saving on a very costly repair bill. Read the full story here.
ECO-FRIENDLY BUILDING BLOCKS
Another South African initiative has found a way to create building bricks out of plastic. No, it’s not the same as the eco-bricks using plastic-stuffed 2 litre plastic bottles that we’re familiar with.
Donald Thompson, the CEO of The Centre of Regenerative Design and Collaboration (CRDC) can turn any plastic (clean or dirty) into sustainable building materials and is looking like a hopeful solution to the dire plastic pollution problem in South Africa – starting with Cape Town.
Ecoblock is an innovative environmentally-friendly product which incorporates regenerated waste plastic particles combined with a standard sand-cement mixture to produce a highly resistant, durable cement or cement block. Read the full story here.
MAKE PLASTIC (ONLY) FROM PLASTIC
Every piece of plastic ever made still exists, in some form of waste, on this earth. The #NOPLASTICWASTE initiative is targeting big industry players to stop making new plastic from fossil fuels and to only make plastic from waste plastic. Stop making plastic is where we need to start. Listen to Andrew Forrest’s fascinating TED talk outlining his plan here.
We’d like to think that the legacy we leave behind is not made of plastiglomerates, but rather the innovative ways we found to get out of a bad situation, alive and thriving.