By Geoff Brighty, Technical Director at Plastic Oceans Foundation (UK)

Do you ever get caught by a headline and dive in to gather that useful insight, only to find that the more you read the detail the more you question the substance of the claim? Do you ever go past that, right to the detail of the report, and then get horrified at the assumptions and mis-information being presented as fact?  This bothers me a lot and we’ve decided to do something about it!

I was brought into Plastic Oceans to review the science being used in the film A Plastic Ocean; to make sure there was sound scientific evidence for any and every claim made.  Reflecting on the past five years, working on the plastic pollution challenge, there are some days when I think we are beginning to see positive change.

New treatment technologies that can reprocess plastic waste are coming to the fore – though not at scale, they will help to plug the recycling and recovery gaps in our waste management system, and offer hope to those developing countries that the clean-up is just around the corner.

And the recent Government consultations on deposit return schemes, and domestic waste collection, show that public opinion is ‘moving the needle’ politically – a direct link from the evidence of plastic in our environment and our lives.

Five years ago, plastic pollution was a specialist theme.  Today, on an almost daily basis, plastic in the headlines.   Mostly its around new places plastic is being found – remote islands, deep ocean waters, the polar environments in ice and air. Or within us and marine organisms, with uncertain consequences for the individual, populations or even the ocean ecosystems.  It makes me realise that we still have a lot to do.  It also shows how plastic is now almost too popular, and everyone is a plastic scientist or a plastic reporter.

Keeping up with the burgeoning amount of investigations and the scientific literature that underpins these stories is a mammoth challenge. But it is equally concerning that the evidence is often being mis-reported, that the science is being ‘cherry picked’ to maximise headlines, without proper reviewing of the sources and the quality of the science. Poor science leads to poor policy and unhelpful public opinion.

One paper we reviewed recently was on plastics in surface water drainage systems – something really important to understand when looking at how to prevent plastic reaching the oceans. The summary presented headlines on plastics entering watercourses during a storm event. Looking into the methodology it turned out that the sampling methodologies were ‘what you can collect from a kayak’ and not what was ‘actually in the river’.

Not everybody has the time to read past the headline, or even past the summary. How do we help everyone see through the headlines to what’s really important? We are now developing a range of insights materials; ‘E-resources’ for informed audiences, from senior school children to professionals and the public, that have had a proper review, can be trusted, and present a balanced assessment of the topic.

We aim to help inform a wider audience on issues related to plastics pollution, as well dispel many of the often-unsubstantiated myths that seem to make the headlines.

What do you want to know more about?  Do you want to support our insights work? Get in touch!

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