Wrong. And it might be worse than you think.
National Geographic has a new story out discussing how plastics break down in ocean water. The plastics in the 7 million ton garbage raft in the Pacific gyre (see video below, this NG link, and pic at right from Algalita Marine Research Foundation) is actually breaking down and its side effects are remarkably awful.
As the plastic breaks down, it releases BPA (among other things) into the water, a substance know to damage animals' endocrine systems. In humans, BPA exposure "may be connected to abnormal penis development in males, early sexual maturation in females, an increase in neurobehavioral problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism, an increase in childhood and adult obesity and type 2 diabetes, and an increase in hormonally mediated cancers, such as prostate and breast cancers." Hundreds of rodent studies have shown that "BPA-exposed animals have altered development of the male and female reproductive tracts, mammary tissues, the immune system, the fat tissue, and the thyroid...[and] altered brain development, increased aggression in adulthood, abnormal play and sexual behaviors, and decreased maternal behaviors."
The Japan-based team collected samples in waters from the U.S., Europe, India, Japan, and elsewhere, lead researcher Katsuhiko Saido, a chemist with the College of Pharmacy at Nihon University in Japan, said via email.
All the water samples were found to contain derivatives of polystyrene, a common plastic used in disposable cutlery, Styrofoam, and DVD cases, among other things, said Saido, who presented the findings at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., today.
Plastic, he said, should be considered a new source of chemical pollution in the ocean.
But now that we know that the plastics are breaking down, we understand that it isn't just a surface water problem, but rather that the the chemicals are sinking down affecting lower water as well and also moving outward with currents. For example,
Once Styrofoam, for example, breaks down, the tiny polystyrene components start to sink, because they're heavier than water, Moore said. "So it's likely that this styrene pollutant is prevalent throughout the water column and not just at the surface."Additionally, the unknown level of chemical contaminants that some plastic containers originally contained (pesticides, herbicides, oil, etc.) compounds an already bad problem. Animals ingesting plastic become sick and "plasticized." If another animal eats that animal and others like it, the concentration goes up. The more predatory/higher on the food chain we go, the more "plasticized" the animal can become. As one of the scientists in the article suggests, that's bad news for us. We are, in effect, poisoning ourselves through an incredibly labyrinthine process not unlike the way that we poisoned ourselves and innumerable raptors with DDT as Rachel Carson pointed out in her classic tract Silent Spring.
We might think, "I don't live near the Pacific Ocean. So who cares?" The "who cares" part is exactly the issue though. This isn't just a localized plastic problem for the Pacific when we know that plastic recycling rates in the U.S. are only about 20%. As a mass-consumer society, we are a part of this system. And the way to effect that change is to change it here and now. So dump the single-use plastic bottles and bags.