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Hey, somebody call the hyperbole police

By: Don Loepp

January 14, 2011

Whenever you read a statistic in a story like this — “The amount of plastic produced since the beginning of the Plastics Age is enough to wrap the world in plastic bags six times over” — you can thank a journalism school professor. (That example came from the trailer for the film Plastic Planet, which opened in U.S. theaters Jan. 14.)

Journalism school teaches budding reporters to put data in terms that are easy to understand. Don’t just write “one part per million,” they say. Write that “it’s the equivalent of a shot glass of whiskey in a railroad tank car full of water.”

So when researchers described the “Great Garbage Patch” as an island of plastic twice the size of Texas, the news media — naturally — repeated the description.

Except it’s not true.

Angelicque White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State University, made a splash earlier this month when she pointed out that the description is grossly exaggerated. She added that claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s, are equally misleading.

“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,” White said in a news release. “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.”

Describing marine debris as an island of plastic floating in the Pacific may be alarming, but it’s clearly an exaggeration.

But that shouldn’t really be a big surprise.

Back in March 2009, Carl Bialik, The Wall Street Journal ’s “Numbers Guy,” looked at reports on the Garbage Patch and wrote that “this floating mass of plastic in the Pacific Ocean is hard to measure, and few agree on how big it is or how much plastic it holds. That makes it difficult to determine what to do about it. That hasn’t stopped activists and the media from using only the biggest estimates of the patch’s size to warn of an environmental catastrophe.”

Bailik noted that some newspaper articles have exaggerated the size and density of the patch, and that data comparing the volume of plastic to plankton had been misused and misquoted.

But his report didn’t stop the hyperbole. Neither will White’s research. Saying the plastic is “less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas” won’t get much attention. Likewise, reporting that the patch has not increased in size since the mid-1980s doesn’t inspire consumers to stop littering, or legislators to ban plastic products.

Let’s not forget, though, that this is not a trivial problem. The plastics industry isn’t going to win a debate about marine debris by pointing out that many reports have been exaggerated. The problem clearly exists, and the industry has an important role in preventing more plastic from fouling the oceans.

Loepp is managing editor of  Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”