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7 Dangerous Lies About Plastic

Big Plastic is big money and survives regulatory scrutiny by creating big spin. Here's what you need to know.

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The researcher from OSU, Angelique White, is correct in her assessment from the best available data, but the data available isn't enough by several degrees of scale to accurately predict spatial distribution of plastics in the gyres (which any scientist who works on the issue will tell you, explicitly), or the ocean in general. To do so would mean that 70 percent of the surface of the earth surface had been sampled.

Well, that's not going to happen anytime soon, as research vessels cost about $30,000 a day and funding is very limited in this field, because so many corporate interests that might sponsor such research depend on plastic to deliver their products. What scientists do know is that 200 billion pounds of plastic are produced each year, and that number is on the rise, and mitigation strategies for keeping plastics out of the ocean are failing, horribly. Greenpeace estimates that of the 200 billion pounds produced annually, 10 percent makes it into the ocean.

To date, the best estimate of how much plastic is in the gyres comes from Columbia University. Researchers took all the major data sets (of which there are very, very few) that exist and calculated 73,878,000 pounds of plastic in the area of the gyres, which accounts for just 16 million of the earth's 315 million square kilometers of ocean surface.

Another problem with determining the scale of plastic pollution is that half of the plastics that are made sink and to date no data exists on how much plastic lies beneath the surface of the water. But when speaking only of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) water bottles, a type of plastic that sinks, we know that Americans alone discard 22 billion a year. Scientists who work on plastic in the ocean often refer to it as, "the world's largest dump." But without "conclusive" data, industry can stay on the offensive.

Lie #3: Plastics don't kill sea life or pose a threat to people eating fish.

While occasionally industry will acknowledge that marine animals do eat plastics from time to time, they make a point of stating that they don't know if the plastics are definitively responsible for the animal's death. To date, 177 species of marine life have been shown to ingest plastics and the number is likely to get much higher as more research is done. Recently published evidence has shown that shards of plastic eroded from synthetic clothing in the washing machine is so small that it can enter an animal at the cellular level. 

But determining death, or eventual death of an animal based on a necropsy (autopsy for animals) is notoriously difficult in some cases. What's at issue is that again, industry takes advantage of the "unknowns" to make the assertion that their products don't cause morbidity. Scientists can't absolutely know what causes an animal's death unless it lives and dies in a controlled environment. But opening up a turtle stomach and finding pounds of plastic in it might give them a clue. How long would a turtle have survived with this much plastic garbage in his guts?

We know that most types of plastic aren't passed by a turtle and that it wreaks havoc on their digestive systems. We also know that carrying around a stomach full of plastic is going to slow him down and change his natural buoyancy. Sharper plastics, cause gut impaction and the potential for stomach wall and intestinal perforation. In the wild, everything about an animal's health and agility matters in determining his survival quotient.

In December, a study was published in Science Of The Total Environment that looked to see if the digestive juices of turtles could make plastic bags decay. Three common types of shopping bags (including bioplastic) were subjected to the gastrointestinal fluids of Green and Loggerheads turtles. Without exception, the ubiquitous High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) bag showed "negligible" biodegradability -- which means if a turtle can't pass it, he's stuck with it forever.

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