All along we've been reading about how plastic marine debris will float in the ocean for centuries, killing wildlife and causing havoc. Now the latest problem is that the plastic won't last forever -- it's degrading faster than scientists expect, and the chemicals being left behind will kill more wildife and cause more havoc. The news comes from a widely-covered speech by Katsuhiko Saido, a chemist at Nihon University in Chiba, Japan, who led a team of scientists that looked at the marine debris problem. Saido spoke this week at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington. According to a report from National Geographic News, the team collected ocean water samples from around the world and found that they all contained derivatives of polystyrene.
The toxic compounds the team found don't occur naturally in the ocean, and the researchers thought plastic was the culprit. The scientists later simulated the decomposition of polystyrene in the sea and found that it degraded at temperatures of 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius). Left behind in the water were the same compounds detected in the ocean samples, such as styrene trimer, a polystyrene by-product, and bisphenol A, a chemical used in hard plastics such as reusable water bottles and the linings of aluminum cans.The National Geographic News version of the story is one of the more complete that I've seen. It notes that water temperatures in much of the ocean are much cooler than 86 degrees Fahrenheit. A few weeks ago, if someone had told me that scientists had discovered that plastic marine debris was breaking down in the ocean, I would have thought that was good news. Apparently I would have been wrong. Really, the best solution to this problem is to stop creating marine debris in the first place -- and to work toward a solution to clean up what's already out there.