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Error is misdirecting consumers

May 12, 2008

by Roz Kohls

Environmentalists are attacking a global campaign to ban plastic bags, because the ban is based on a typographical error. The ban causes consumers to focus on plastic bags instead of real environmental threats, such as carbon emissions.

Plastic bags allegedly caused the death of 100,000 animals and a million seabirds, according to a mistaken Australian report in 2002.

When environmental activists heard about the report, and didn’t know it was bad science, they started a push to ban the bags.

Plastic bags pollute coastlines and waterways, killing or injuring birds dolphins, porpoises, seals, turtles, whales, and livestock on land, the people say who are pushing the ban. Pressure groups try to force stores to charge for the bags, saying that they are “one of the most visible symbols of environmental waste.”

Where did this idea come from? A 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland found that between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine animals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets.

Fifteen years later, in 2002, when the Australian government commissioned a report on plastic bags, the authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, attributing the deaths to plastic bags.

No one noticed the error until 2006, and replaced the mistake in the report with “plastic debris,” such as fishing tackle.

“The main culprits are fishing gear, ropes, lines, and strapping bands. Most mammals are too big to get caught up in a plastic bag,” said David Laist, the author of a 1997 study on marine debris.

Other forms of plastic in the ocean are much more damaging, according to Professor Geoff Boxshall, a marine biologist at the Natural History Museum. Plastic particles known as nurdles, dumped in the sea by industrial companies, are more threatening because they can be easily swallowed by birds and animals.

“I’ve never seen a bird killed by a plastic bag,” Boxshall said.

Too late, however. The demonizing of plastic bags has already begun. Scientists now are worried the public will focus on plastic bags, instead of reducing carbon emissions, which is a far more important goal.

As Lord Taverne, the chairman of Sense About Science, said, “Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good, but it doesn’t achieve anything.”