Christopher Joyce

The U.S. used to send a lot of its plastic waste to China to get recycled. But last year, China put the kibosh on imports of the world's waste. The policy, called National Sword, freaked out people in the U.S. — a huge market for plastic waste had just dried up.

Where was it all going to go now?

The avalanche of plastic waste that's rolling over land and sea has inspired numerous potential solutions. Some involve inventing our way out of the mess by creating new kinds of natural materials that will harmlessly degrade if they're thrown away.

Others say it might be quicker to change people's throwaway behavior instead.

Plastic waste gets a lot of attention when photos of dead whales with stomachs full of plastic bags hit the news. Pieces of plastic also litter cities, and tiny plastic particles are even floating in the air.

Largely overlooked is how making plastic in the first place affects the environment, especially global warming. Plastic actually has a big carbon footprint, but so do many of the alternatives to plastic. And that's what makes replacing plastic a problem without a clear solution.

If civilizations are remembered for what they leave behind, our time might be labeled the Plastic Age. Plastic can endure for centuries. It's everywhere, even in our clothes, from polyester leisure suits to fleece jackets.

A Silicon Valley startup is trying to get the plastic out of clothing and put something else in: biopolymers.

The largest habitat for life on Earth is the deep ocean. It's home to everything from jellyfish to giant bluefin tuna. But the deep ocean is being invaded by tiny pieces of plastic — plastic that people thought was mostly floating at the surface, and in amounts they never imagined.

There was a time when life on Earth almost blinked out. The "Great Dying," the biggest extinction the planet has ever seen, happened some 250 million years ago and was largely caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Now scientists are beginning to see alarming similarities between the Great Dying and what's currently happening to our atmosphere.

Scientists are highlighting that similarity in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

When a marine biologist from Australia traveled to a remote string of islands in the Indian Ocean to see how much plastic waste had washed up on the beaches, here's just part of what she found: "373,000 toothbrushes and around 975,000 shoes, largely flip-flops," says Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania in Australia.

And that's only what was on the surface.

The jawbone of a little-known form of ancient human has been discovered in western China. Scientists say these people lived as long as 150,000 years ago, and they were part of a group called Denisovans.

The Denisovans are a mystery. Up until now, their only remains — a few bone fragments and teeth — came from a cave called Denisova in Siberia.

Surprisingly high amounts of microplastic are raining down on a remote and seemingly pristine part of France's Pyrenees mountains, according to scientists who say such particles could potentially be floating everywhere.

An unusual species of human apparently lived on the island of Luzon in the Philippines as recently as 50,000 years ago. Based on teeth and bones found there, scientists suspect that these early humans probably stood less than 4 feet tall and had several apelike features. Yet, the researchers say, the bones are distinctly human — from a previously undiscovered species.

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