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Putting the boot into plastic, BBC-style

By Hamish Champ
Posted 31 January 2013

I like the BBC. I always have done. I’ve long thought it a broadcaster that was even-handed when covering controversial issues.

However when it comes to being ‘balanced’ I’m going to have to put ‘Newsnight’, the BBC’s current affairs programme, on the ‘naughty step’.

Earlier this week the programme featured an item on plastic waste in the world’s oceans. You may have seen it.

It featured some fairly shocking footage of an island in the Pacific, the beaches of which were festooned with detritus from the modern world, all of it seemingly made of plastic.

Cue some fairly cute film of fluffy albatross chicks, pecking at the camera lens and surrounded by old fishing floats, nets, plastic bottles and other rubbish, plus some shots of dead birds who, it was implied, had met their end by ingesting bits of plastic waste.

It was fairly shocking stuff. And no doubt it was meant to be.

Having featured hefty contributions from scientists and experts who pointed to the rising danger of plastic pollutants in our seas the item’s presenter – who had been filmed aboard a boat talking about the issue of micro-plastic particles finding their way into the food chain and turning boy fish into girl fish – finally asked “What is the plastics industry doing about the problem?”

And up pops Peter Davis, director-general of the British Plastics Federation (BPF).

It wasn’t the plastics industry that chucked empty plastic water bottles on the nation’s beaches, he said.

It wasn’t the plastics industry that illegally dumped tonnes of plastics over the side of ocean-going container ships, he said.

The industry wanted the waste stuff back, so it could recycle it and save valuable resources or turn it into energy.

Good comments, I thought. And then he was gone. Just like that.

Davis – representing an industry that employs thousands of people in the UK and generates hundreds of millions of pounds for the country’s economy – got a mere 18 seconds to put the case for plastics in a feature lasting 11 minutes, most of which might as well have equated plastics manufacture with devil worship. Or worse.

No mention of those who chuck stuff over the side of a ship at the dead of night, way out to sea. Or members of the public who can't be bothered to take their rubbish home with them or, heaven forbid, put it in a bin.

True, at least the BBC went to the BPF for a comment, but Davis told me he was filmed for much longer than the 18 seconds that made it onto our screens.

I suspect those of his comments that illustrated the contribution plastic makes to the modern world and the work the industry does to mitigate its impact on the environment merely ended up on the cutting room floor.

This is not only a real shame, it did little to enhance the already battered reputation of the programme which covered the subject.

Comments:

You still can feel happy about the BBC-style compared to other national broadcasters like ORF here in Austria. Peter Davis got enormous 18 seconds - I got once less in a BPA-discussion - ok, UK is a bit bigger than Austria.... Plastics are blamed for everything bad, whatever we the plastics experts do..... Plastics should be degradeable (although this doesn`t solve any environmental problem, they could)- whats about glass and metal? Ok, they don`t swim in oceans but never disappear. Who blames metal used to make weapons causing hundred thousands of people killed. Who will blame the Färöer youngsters killing hundreds of Calderon delfines just for fun year per year? - or whales, or seals somewhere else? Who starts blaming people disposing their waste everywhere but not in the right places? Who starts blaming governments (e.g. yours) still allowing landfill? I was always aware living in a crazy, controversial world - why are we still surprised about unbalaced, unqualified attacks? All we can do is to publish this kind nonsense and thanks to people like you, this happens.

- 05 February 2013 - Leopold Katzmayer

Couldn't agree more! The amount of inference and non-science portrayed as "real" science was mind-boggling! I, for one, would really welcome the global plastics industry trade bodies funding a multi-layered study (big bits and "micro" bits; surface, sub-surface, ocean floor, etc.) by a multi-disciplinary team of respected specialists and interested parties: marine biologists, toxicologists, pressure group representatives (as observers, at least, so as to avoid retrospective claims of bias) and even plastics material scientists. I felt sorry that Peter had his bits cut off, so to speak, but would urge him to call for even wider cooperation worldwide with his equivalent industry representatives. I know there has been Operation Cleansweep and Beach Watch activities, both of which are to be applauded. The Newsnight broadcast, however, placed much emphasis on the smaller particles floating/suspended in open water. It will take much more than a groaningly pathetic attempt at “Green” marketing by a well-known Swedish domestic appliance manufacturer, when they offered vacuum cleaners moulded from plastics recovered from the ocean. There have been so many separate eco-warrior and academic initiatives, but none — to my knowledge — that takes a more coordinated approach. Now, I’m off for my hermaphrodite haddock and chips!

- 31 January 2013 - Plastic Mac

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