It is widely assumed that about 10% of annual plastic production ends up in the oceans. That would mean that about 30 million tonnes end up in our seas every year. But this is just a myth and has been spread by a UN mistake as reported by Nordic Science. The actual number is 2 – 4%. The UN knows it is a mistake but it serves their “political” goals to go slow with any correction. I would go so far as to say that the UN mistake (by a consultant – of course) was quite deliberate. Which advocacy group did that consultant come from – I wonder?
It is tempting to beat our largest drums when fighting pollution. … One of science’s cardinal virtues is accuracy. Despite that, scientists are contributing to the dissemination of numbers with rather nebulous sources.
When ScienceNordic’s Norwegian partner forskning.no recently wrote about new calculations quantifying the plastic debris in the sea, we wondered why the new figures were so much lower than previous findings.
A number of researchers stated that the new calculation methods were the best they had seen to date. So we tried to find out how other scientists had ended up with a much higher figure –ten percent of the world’s plastic output. This was no easy task. The one-tenth figure cropped up ubiquitously, but no one could say what research it was based on. Apparently it didn’t come from research at all.
Some still claim that ten percent of the plastic produced annually ends up in marine environments. In 2013 alone that would equate to 30 million tonnes. This is a staggering amount of plastic for the oceans of the world and the marine life in these seas to cope with.
The latest calculations decrease this share of plastic debris to two to four percent of annual output.
We started searching for the source of the ten-percent figure.
Each reference pointed to another, which in turn referred to another article or paper in an apparent endless chain. Where was the original source?
A UN document for a workshop of international experts on marine debris also referred to a scientific paper. But when we checked that paper there we found no trace of this ten percent estimate.
We contacted the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which had commissioned the document from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). They would not put us in touch with the author of the document, but Jihyun Lee in the Secretariat sent us an e-mail:
“Our consultant quoted the reference in good faith as it was cited in a peer-reviewed paper as being the source of the information. A robust review of this paper by the consultant when he quoted this information could have avoided this mistake. Unfortunately he did not go back to the source reference in this case to double-check the original source.”
The UN document was a draft. The mistake had already been pointed out by a scientist at the workshop and checked out. Jihyun Lee explains that the number will now be deleted from the final report.
But the number had already spread internationally, including to Norway, where the expert on plastics Geir Wing Gabrielsen of the Norwegian Polar Institute quoted it in the media.
“When I read a scientific article or a UN report, I expect the references made to be correct and they should be possible to confirm. It is unfortunate when, as in this case, numbers are impossible to track down,” he writes in an e-mail.
Forskning.no finally traced the 10% number through many a false citation to a non-peer-reviewed conference presentation by a Professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University who now admits he had no basis for the number but says it was based on “grey” literature. Which advocacy group did his “respected source” come from?
“ It was from a respected source, it seemed credible and I believed it as did others,” he writes in an e-mail to forskning.no. But he doesn’t answer the question of why he neglected to investigate the reference which the number comes from.
Thompson writes that he relied on grey literature, in other words, information from the authorities, organisations or academics who have not been peer reviewed through formal scientific publications. Typically, this could be a report, a work note or a presentation.
“On further digging there is no substance to them – they were guesses and I should not have used them. I have not used the quote again,” he writes.
No doubt the consultant and the grey literature were from some advocacy group, such as Greenpeace, who have no qualms about making up information when it suits their purpose. Lies are justified as necessary because their “ends are good”. I note that the UN bureaucracy believe that the end justifies the means and their means include disseminating “grey information” as if it was gospel. It is not so surprising then that the UN IPCC reports on climate are full of highly dubious grey literature.
The UN’s scientific panels are little better than advocacy groups. Accuracy and truth have just become collateral damage in the furthering of their political goals. And the IPCC leads all the rest.