“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists.”
That is the assessment of Angel White, an assistant professor of Oceanography at Oregon State University. Earlier this year, she published a report showing that much of what is said about the impact of plastics in the ocean is simply wrong or exaggerated. A recent blog post on the People for Puget Sound web page echoes many of those exaggerations, ignoring the real science in favor of political hyperbole.
The post, called “Gray Whale’s Death a Wakeup Call About Plastics,” says the death of a Gray Whale in the Puget Sound last year is evidence that we need to ban plastic bags. Instead of offering facts, however, the post gets the facts and the science wrong.
For instance, the author writes “My emotions were swirling. I knew all about that monstrous mass of plastic floating in the Pacific, the one now larger than the size of Texas.” That, however, is simply false. Dr. White’s study found:
We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic. … But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.
She goes on to note that the size of the patch “hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the impact, but if People for Puget Sound thinks the facts are so clear, why not get them right?
The post goes on to imply that the Gray Whale died because it ingested plastic bags and other garbage. The post claims “Over twenty plastic bags in all were removed from the whale’s stomach. John shook his head. In 20 years examining over 200 whales, he said he had never seen anything like this.” We should be glad that this sort of thing is extremely rare.
But what the author leaves out is that the plastic bags and other garbage (they also found part of a pair of sweat pants and some other material) accounted for less than 2 percent of the contents of the whale’s stomach. The Olympian reported at the time that “the debris, while abundant, represented about 1 percent to 2 percent of the stomach contents, which consisted mostly of algae. … There is no sign that it caused the whale’s death.” So, the garbage, while troubling, is more of a symbol than the cause of the death.
So the question is, even if People for Puget Sound can’t get their facts or science straight, why not take action to prevent plastic bags from reaching the water? First, there is some indication that the ban being considered would do little. Other bans have had little to no impact.
The other issue is one of environmental tradeoffs. Paper bags use four time the amount of energy to create as plastic bags. Moving from plastic to paper would increase energy use. The environmental left is constantly lecturing that climate change is the “most serious challenge of our generation.” If that is true, why take a step that may have little environmental benefit, like banning plastic bags, when it guarantees an increased climate impact?
That’s why getting the science and facts right is so important. It allows us to understand the environmental tradeoffs we are making. Substituting emotion for science makes good copy but often ends up doing more harm than good.
by Todd Myers, Center for the Environment, Washington Policy Center