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Plastic Garbage Is Turning Into a New Kind of Rock in Hawaii

By Terrell Johnson
Published: June 9, 2014

Something strange has been discovered on the Big Island of Hawaii, and it's not just the trash that washes up along the shore of Kamilo Beach, long considered one of the dirtiest shorelines anywhere in the world.

Scientists from Canada's University of Western Ontario made a stunning find there recently of a new kind of rock they call "plastiglomerate," made from plastic household garbage fused with volcanic rock, sea shells, beach sand and corals.

Thanks to both ocean currents and its location -- the beach is accessible only on foot or with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, making cleanups difficult -- Kamilo catches everything from "derelict fishing gear, including nets, oyster spacer tubes and buoys; food and drinking containers; resin pellets; and abundant multi-colored fragments or 'plastic confetti'."

In a study published by the Geological Society of America, the scientists conclude that the "Frankenrock" probably formed when people camping on the beach threw plastic garbage into their campfires. Melting fuses the plastic, rock and shell fragements and other debris together, though bits of it still stick out as recognizable forks, ropes, toothbrushes and "anything you can think of," according to geologist Patricia Corcoran.

“The article is intriguing and fascinating,” Douglas Jerolmack, a geophysicist with the University of Pennsylvania, told Science Magazine. “If these things can be preserved, then they might be a nice marker around the world of when humans came to dominate the globe and leave behind their refuse in mass quantities.”

Corcoran and her fellow researchers found plastiglomerates on more than 20 sites across Kamilo Beach, and they believe they could probably found on beaches around the world. About a billion tons of plastic have been thrown out since the 1950s, Canada's Weather Network notes, adding that it will likely take as long as 500 years for some forms of it to biodegrade.

"All around the world where there’s trash being openly burned in mass quantities, you can imagine there are even larger melted plastic deposits," Jerolmack added in his interview with Science.

That the story is being reported this week carries added significance. That's because Sunday is World Oceans Day, the anniversary recognized by the United Nations since 2008 as a day to reflect on the beauty of the oceans on which humanity depends for its very survival.

Read the full story at the Geological Society of America.

 

MORE: Hawaiian Beach Sunsets

Waialua Bay sunset, Oahu (puuikibeach/Flickr)


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