Although we know where the plastic came from, the origin of this particular tar was not clear. But in general, when oil spills, it floats around and partially evaporates and thickens over time tar balls, which then washes ashore. It’s basically super-toxic Play-Doh. “Once it gets stuck on the rock, the wave brings microplastic or other debris and pushes it into this Play-Doh,” says Hernández-Borges. “Microplastic comes constantly, constantly, constantly. The microplastic we find in the tar is the same as we find on the coast.” These tiny pieces add to the harmfulness of plastics because plastics are filled with thousands of their own chemicals, many of which are known to be toxic to humans and other animals.
These researchers can not yet say what effect the plasticizer may have on the organisms that live on the beaches of the Canary Islands. But the problem can be twofold. “If there were algae or whatever, those rocks are completely covered by it, so they will definitely die,” says Hernández-Borges. Second, plastitar is darker than the rock, which means it absorbs more of the sun’s energy. “If you touch it, you will see that it is also very, very, very hot,” he says. It can raise the temperature significantly at the earth’s surface, with unknown implications for the organisms that live there.
In a previous study on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean, a separate team of researchers found that plastic particles raised the temperature of beach sand. It can endanger sea turtles if sex is determined by the temperature of the sand in which the eggs are laid – if it gets too hot, they all become female, which is not good for a species’ sexual reproduction.
The discovery of plastitar adds another layer of complexity to the problem of oceanic plastic pollution. For a long time, environmentalists were primarily preoccupied with the big things, like liquid bottles and bags. It was not until the early 2000s that scientists began to study microplastics in earnest, and subsequently they found that almost the entire Earth is spotted. The particles blow into the atmosphere and reach the highest mountains. Up in the sky, they can have a climate effect – although it is not clear whether they will ultimately help warm or cool the planet. People are eating and drinking lots of microplastics, and babies are drinking more and more in their infant formula, but scientists are only beginning to study what it could mean for human health.
Until recently, researchers have discovered “new plastic formations”, of which plastitar is only the latest. For example, when plastic burns in beach bonfires, it forms a knotty matrix of polymer mixed with sand and other debris. “Plasticrust” is formed in the same way as plastitar, when waves smash plastic into coastal rocks, only without the involvement of tar. (High outdoor temperatures heat the rocks, which can help the synthetic material melt into them.) And scientists have begun to study what they call anthropoquina, or new sedimentary rock made of plastic and other man-made materials. “If someone in thousands of years finds one of these stones, they will probably find plastic and they will see how we lived,” says Hernández-Borges. “So it’s a kind of geological record.”
And because anyone come to think of it – to be perfectly clear, then we should does not get inspiration from plastitar to rid the sea of microplastics. “I read this and left no“, says Allen.” Some idiot out there will go: Just put oil over the top of the surface, then clean it up. But no.”