Plastic particles from box core. Examples of (A) fibers, (B) fragments, (C) film, and (D) spherical particles.

Researchers with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego have released a study that says microscopic plastics off the California coast has doubled every 15 years since the 1940s, and the increase in these marine plastics matches the rise in plastic production worldwide, and with regard to California, has coincided with the rise in California’s coastal population.

 FTIR spectra of plastic standards and sediment samples.PET, polyethylene terephthalate; LDPE, low-density PE; PS, polystyrene; PVC, polyvinyl chloride; HDPE, high-density PE; Unclear sediment sample, unidentified.

“This study shows that our plastic production is being almost perfectly copied in our sedimentary record. Our love of plastic is actually being left behind in our fossil record,” Scripps microplastics biologist Jennifer Brandon, lead author of the study, “Multidecadal increase in plastic particles in coastal ocean sediments” that appears in the journal Science Advances.

“It is bad for the animals that live at the bottom of the ocean: coral reefs, mussels, oysters and so on. But the fact that it is getting into our fossil record is more of an existential question. We all learn in school about the stone age, the bronze age and iron age – is this going to be known as the plastic age?” she said. “It is a scary thing that this is what our generations will be remembered for.”

The researchers analyzed coastal sediment of the Santa Barbara basic for changes in microplastic deposition using a box core that ranged from 1834 to 2009. The sediment was cataloged for plastic and the researchers found a subset off the man made material that was confirmed as plastic polymers using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. This led to the finding that plastic deposition in the ocean doubled every 15 years, from 1945 to 2009.

Most of the plastic that was found during the study were clothing fibers, starting in 1945 and then increasingly exponentially by 2010. They determined that 10 times as much plastic ended up in the Santa Barbara basin than before World War II. After the war, types of plastic discovered included plastic bag materials and plastic particles, in addition to plastic clothing fibers.

The complete research paper can be read in its entirety on the ScienceAdvances website.