Coastal cleanup crews scour beaches for plastic junk all the time, but one team in the United Kingdom came across the equivalent of a rare fossil on Oct. 4, according to the Guardian.
Members of the Burnham Coastguard Rescue Team were shown a plastic bottle at least 47 years old that recently washed ashore a UK beach.
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The dish detergent bottle is from the brand Fairy Liquid and dates back to at least 1971, according to the Guardian, when a new process of currency exchange was introduced in the United Kingdom.
It features a few dents and streaks of grime, and some of its text has been eroded. That means the bottle has presumably spent decades in conditions — including in the Atlantic Ocean — that would degrade naturally occurring substances in a matter of days, weeks, or months, and still it came out intact.
“This bottle has been floating around in our waters and still looks almost new,” the Burnham Coastguard Rescue Team wrote in a Facebook post. “If you watched the BBC One program Drowning In Plastic, you will see what effects plastics are having on our entire world.”
The bottle’s well-preserved state sheds light on the question of how long plastic lasts. One study argues that certain types of plastic bottles take more than 450 years to break down — meaning this Fairy Light bottle could be around for several more centuries. Since plastic only became widespread in the middle of the 20th century, the true lifespan of various types of plastic under different circumstances will only become known as the process unfolds in real time.
Regardless, it’s clear that plastic takes a long time to break down and a massive amount of plastic exists throughout the world. More than 380 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year, and plastic production is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade.
The vast majority of this plastic, meanwhile, isn’t recycled or repurposed and gets thrown away, polluting the planet. If plastic takes decades or centuries to break down, then billions of tons of plastic are building up in the global environment.
Marine ecosystems, in particular, have been contaminated with plastic in recent decades, which harms animals in myriad ways. Many animals accidentally swallow plastic thinking it’s food and end up starving to death, get entangled in and injured by plastic, and are poisoned by plastic toxins.
There are also more than 51 trillion pieces of microplastic floating in the world’s oceans that are routinely swallowed by marine creatures.
As the environmental toll of plastic pollution grows, countries, companies, and individuals have begun to take action.
Activists around the world organize beach and river cleanups to remove plastic debris from marine environments, more than 60 countries have enacted restrictions on plastic production, multinational companies are investing in plastic alternatives, and recycling programs are becoming more sophisticated.
The United Nations is also spearheading efforts to drastically reduce plastic production through a global pact.
If these efforts are successful, in 50 years, future populations might not be coming across the plastic bottles of today.