Plastic is a major threat to the environment

Contrary to much media coverage that has placed plastic at the top of the list of environmental enemies, it is not on the same level as climate change, consumerism, and the human population explosion, which collectively threaten the biosphere.

I have spent a good deal of my career studying the impact of plastics on marine ecosystems. We should not ignore their effects. We must be honest and responsible in reporting these effects.

Richard Stafford and Peter Jones are two English environmental conservationists who recently wrote Ocean Plastic Pollution: A Convenient but Distracting Truth? arguing that plastic is a “convenient fact” that distracts people and governments away from the real environmental challenges facing the world.

Why do people perceive plastic as such a threat? One reason is that accepting the lifestyle changes required to combat the climate crisis is more difficult than reducing reliance on plastics. The problem is also exacerbated by biased reporting.

There are some misleading stories.

In 2001, one of the first alarmist stats to be released to the public was that the North Pacific “garbage patch” contained six times as much plastic as zooplankton. Charles James Moore, the director of Algalita Marine Research and Education Foundation at the time, published the data in a paper. He reported that although zooplankton is five times as abundant as plastic, it weighs six times more. Media outlets chose to focus on the second figure.

Moore did not mention that the statistics were based on research that only included the top few centimeters where the floating plastic is concentrated. This is important because zooplankton distribution is much more uniform with depth. Moore’s sample would have yielded a much lower number if he had taken samples through the water column.

Read more: Climate change: obsession with plastic pollution distracts attention from bigger environmental challenges.

Another oft-abused figure states that 99% of seabirds will have ingested plastic by 2050. Most people interpret this to mean that 99% of individual seabirds will have plastic in them. Yet the study tried to predict what proportion of species will have ingested plastic at least once. Given the prevalence of microfibres in the ocean, it is inevitable that all seabirds have already consumed some fibers. The real question is, does this have a significant impact on them? For most species, the answer is no, relative to the threats they face from fishing, invasive species, disease, and climate change.

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