Despite widespread media attention and the so-called ‘Blue Planet effect’, the majority of Britons do not realise that everyday plastic usage, from washing clothes to drinking cups of tea, is contributing to microplastic pollution in our oceans and rivers, a study has suggested.
Researchers from Brunel University London worked with six focus groups, which were broken down into categories such as ‘young mothers’ or ‘community centre helpers’, to try and discover whether the increased media coverage of microplastics was having a positive effect on public understanding.
Each group was asked to fill in a series of questionnaires and participate in group exercises, such as watching a news report on plastic pollution or the documentary film A Plastic Ocean, to see if they trusted and understood their messages.
They found that the majority of participants were not only unaware of how microplastics come to be in the ocean, but were surprised at the sheer scale of the problem and at the idea of plastics in the food chain.
‘People struggle because microplastics are hard to understand in terms of how they originate, and it was difficult for most people to make the link between what they do on an everyday basis – say, using a plastic bag – and the idea that they could be responsible for plastics in the ocean,’ said Dr Lesley Henderson, a reader in sociology and communication at Brunel University London, who published the study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.
Dr Henderson said the respondents had a ‘visceral’ response to the images and videos used in the research sessions but noted ‘shock and disgust does not equate with sustained change’.
‘It is really important for non-scientists to know what microplastics are because we all need to play a part in reducing plastic waste,’ said Dr Henderson. ‘It is now understood by scientists that human behaviour is the sole source of marine litter.
‘It is vital we look at what people know about the issue and where there may be confusion or misconceptions if we are to change people’s behaviour.’
In June 2019, a World Wildlife Fund study found that humans could be ingesting five grams of plastic every week because of polluted water.
No Plastic in Nature: Assessing Plastic Ingestion from Nature to People combined data from over 50 studies on the ingestion of microplastics by people and researchers said the findings are an important step towards understanding the impact of plastic pollution on humans.
The study, which was commissioned by the WWF and carried out by University of Newcastle, Australia, suggests people are consuming about 2000 tiny pieces of plastic every week. That’s approximately 21 grams a month, just over 250 grams a year.
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