Does the prediction that there could be “more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050” worry you? How about reports that “we eat the equivalent of a credit card a week in plastic”? These are some of the “facts” about plastic cited by the media.
They are certainly convincing soundbites and help to draw public and policy attention to the pressing issue of plastic pollution, but their scientific basis is far from robust.
Scientists whose findings were used to support the “more plastic than fish” claim have refuted this claim. But a scientist who worked on the original source on which the estimate is based has now updated his numbers. The claim is further undermined by the assumptions on which the calculation is based and by an underestimation of fisheries resources.
The research also found that humans ingest less than a grain of microplastics per week. This means it would take around 4,700 years to ingest an amount of plastic equivalent to the weight of a credit card.
Over the past three years I have been interviewing families in the UK, Spain and Germany about plastics as part of a project focused on improving the recycling of plastic packaging. I was struck by the level of confusion people have about the sources and risks associated with plastic pollution.
So, in collaboration with the Hereon Institute for Coastal Environmental Chemistry and communications experts, I launched an online resource called “Plastic Mythbusters,” which aims to debunk popular myths about plastic that regularly appear in the media.
Negotiations are currently underway in Nairobi, Kenya, at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme, to develop a legally binding global treaty on plastics that covers the entire life cycle of plastics – including their production, design and disposal. The Coalition of Scientists for an Effective Plastics Treaty – a network of independent scientific and technical experts – calls for decisions to be based on solid evidence.
Also read: We need a global treaty to solve plastic pollution – acid rain and ozone depletion show us why
The focus of the negotiations is, understandably, on natural science research. But what role does the media play in shaping public and political responses to the plastics crisis?
Plastic pollution images
The images of plastic pollution that are sometimes used by the media are emotional and powerful, reaching a large number of people. The BBC’s Blue Planet II program, broadcast worldwide in 2017, showed the public the impact of plastic waste on the oceans through disturbing scenes. One scene showed a pilot whale carrying its dead newborn calf, which narrator Sir David Attenborough said possibly died because its mother’s milk was poisoned with plastic.
Scenes like these are now synonymous with plastic pollution. They can raise awareness of the issue and help shape the discourse on environmental policy.
After Blue Plant II aired, online searches for “dangers of plastic in the oceans” increased by 100%. Michael Gove, the UK’s environment secretary at the time, said he was “haunted” by the images of the damage done to the world’s oceans shown in the series and later put forward a series of proposals aimed at reducing plastic pollution.
However, there is no clear evidence in the Blue Planet II sequel that breast milk was actually contaminated with plastic. Images like this can also promote the idea that plastic pollution is a problem far removed from our everyday lives and that our actions, whether eliminating plastic waste or engaging in local clean-up initiatives, will have little effect. There is still no solid evidence linking Blue Planet II to a sustained change in people’s behavior.
Also read: It’s great that Blue Planet II is pushing hard on plastic pollution in the oceans – but please use facts, not conjecture
The way the media presents the issue of plastic pollution can shape preferences for certain solutions and marginalize others. For example, many people believe that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a large collection of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean – is a solid mass. Framing the problem this way assumes that plastic pollution can be removed from the ocean with the right technology.
However, scientists describe the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as more similar to a “growing plastic air pollution” that contains larger plastic items but is also made up of billions of micro- and nanoplastics spread over great distances.
Experts point out that technical solutions are not always the answer, especially when the plastic spreads over large areas, resembling a very thin “plastic soup”. In these cases, technical fixes are less practical, especially when considering the continued addition of more plastic due to uncontrolled production.
Power of the media to set the agenda
There is a growing consensus that advocates investing in measures to reduce plastic production, rather than investing in costly technical cleanup efforts. However, by emphasizing consumers’ individual responsibility to, for example, avoid single-use plastics, media coverage can divert conversations away from reducing plastic production.
The link between plastics and climate change, or the impact of plastics on global biodiversity loss, are also not often covered in the media, as are emotionally charged images depicting marine animals entangled in plastics.
The original focus of the global plastics treaty was marine litter, but it now encompasses the entire lifecycle of plastic pollution across all ecosystems. This includes plastic pollution in the atmosphere and in marine, terrestrial and high-altitude environments. This broader scope opens up the opportunity to explore public perceptions about the full life cycle of plastics.
The media is an invaluable resource that can play a key role in shaping how people perceive various issues. However, while it can effectively highlight the dangers of plastic pollution, there is a risk that an over-reliance on emotive images could distract from the policy that is really needed.
In response to this article, a BBC spokesperson said there is significant scientific evidence that contaminants found in some plastics can accumulate in fish and be ingested by adult whales. These contaminants are then passed on to offspring through breast milk.