Credit: Jeff Elstone

The geology community is abuzz with talk of the Anthropocene Epoch—the first geologic era to record a noticeable imprint of human activity. Though the period is typically marked by broad influences such as climate change and biodiversity loss, researchers from Canada’s Western University in Ontario report in this month's issue of the journal GSA Today that contemporary human behaviors are now acutely visible in the earth's physical composition.

When Patricia Corcoran, an associate professor in Western's earth sciences department and one of the paper's three authors, investigated Hawaii’s notoriously littered Kamilo Beach, she found a hybrid rock formation partially composed of plastic. Corcoran, who was joined by Western visual arts professor and co-author Kelly Jazvac, named the new material “plastiglomerate” after traditional conglomerate rock formations, noting that the samples the pair found were created by a fusion of melted plastic and local basalt.

A plastioglomerate piece containing plastic fragments and pellets affixed to wood and sand.

A plastioglomerate piece containing plastic fragments and pellets affixed to wood and sand.

Credit: Patricia Corcoran

"Basalt has higher density than plastic,” said Corcoran in a university press release. "So ... when you melt the plastic, and it becomes stuck to the rock fragments, that makes the plastic heavier and more dense and it increases its potential to be buried.”

Considered the first type of rock formation influenced by the activities of Homo sapiens and spotted to date only at Kamilo Beach, plastiglomerate is quite a durable material. "If someone came along a million years from now, and was looking at a stratigraphic section through the rock, they would be able to see this plastic along one horizon and say this was the time when humankind was using so much plastic and not disposing of it properly,” Corcoran said.

The material was on display from Dec. 12, 2013 to Jan. 14, 2014, at The Louis B. James Gallery in New York as a part of "Touch the Moon," a group exhibition that included Jazvac's work.

In the future, perhaps concentrated plastiglomerate ore—an unintended man-made fossil fuel re-deposited into the earth’s crust—could be mined for energy.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.