The central claim of campaigners is that the bags kill more than 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year. However, this figure is based on a misinterpretation of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that, between 1981 and 1984, more than 100,000 marine mammals, including birds, were killed by discarded nets. The Canadian study did not mention plastic bags.
Fifteen years later in 2002, when the Australian Government commissioned a report into the effects of plastic bags, its authors misquoted the Newfoundland study, mistakenly attributing the deaths to "plastic bags".
The figure was latched on to by conservationists as proof that the bags were killers. For four years the "typo" remained uncorrected. It was only in 2006 that the authors altered the report, replacing "plastic bags" with "plastic debris". But they admitted: "The actual numbers of animals killed annually by plastic bag litter is nearly impossible to determine."
In a postscript to the correction they admitted that the original Canadian study had referred to fishing tackle, not plastic debris, as the threat to the marine environment. Regardless, the erroneous claim has become the keystone of a widening campaign to demonise plastic bags.
David Santillo, a marine biologist at Greenpeace, told The Times that bad science was undermining the Government's case for banning the bags. "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags," he said. "The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags. It doesn't do the Government's case any favours if you've got statements being made that aren't supported by the scientific literature
that's out there. With larger mammals it's fishing gear that's the big problem. On a global basis plastic bags aren't an issue. It would be great if statements like these weren't made."
Geoffrey Cox, a Tory member of the Commons Environment Select Committee, said: "I don't like plastic bags and I certainly support restricting their use, but plainly it's extremely important that before we take any steps we should rely on accurate information. It is bizarre that any campaign should be endorsed on the basis of a mistranslation. Gordon Brown should get his facts right."
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