Journal Publishes Misleading Voice of ‘Reason’

October 23rd, 2014 · 1 Comment · environment, journalism

By Denise Tessier

Last month, the day after about 400 people marched in Albuquerque and hundreds of thousands marched worldwide to demand action on climate change, the Albuquerque Journal ran a relevant but industry-slanted piece that was soon after debunked by one of the paper’s own readers and nationally discredited by the watchdog site, Media Matters.

The timing in running the piece likely was mere coincidence when Journal editors decided to give generous Op-Ed page space to “Plastic bag bans not a panacea for the environment.” But that it would run questionable information and overlook the industry background of the writer is of more egregious concern, and gives the impression the Journal essentially has chosen to chastise two New Mexico cities for banning plastic bags.

The piece was written by Julian Morris, listed as “Vice President of Research” for the Reason Foundation, which, as pointed out by Journal letter writer Bruce G. Trigg, is funded in part by the Koch brothers, one of whom, David Koch, serves as a Foundation trustee. It can be said that these industrial billionaires have an interest in plastic bags, which in the United States are made from a waste by-product of natural gas refining, according to American Plastic Manufacturing.

Let’s look at just the first few paragraphs in the Morris column:

Over 200 municipalities in the United States, including two in New Mexico – Santa Fe and Silver City – have banned the distribution of lightweight plastic shopping bags.

Proponents of these bag bans claim they will reduce litter and protect the marine environment, diminish our consumption of resources and emissions of greenhouse gases, reduce waste and save taxpayers’ money.

. . . a recent report for the Reason Foundation shows that all these claims are false. (My emphasis added.)

Media Matters’ point-by-point analysis of Morris’s article shows the claims by bag ban proponents are not false, and instead it was Morris making misleading and false claims in his widely disseminated opinion piece.

Point One: Citing “authoritative studies” (which he admitted were done for the Reason Foundation), Morris said:

. . .plastic bags constitute less than 1 percent of visible litter in U.S. cities. The presence of plastic bags in trees and on the ground signifies that a community has a litter problem. The appropriate response is . . . education and other initiatives – not to ban plastic bags.

That the single-use plastic bag is ubiquitous should be no surprise, considering a trillion are in use each year – nearly 2 million a minute – the average use time of which is 12 minutes.

Education as the solution for the litter problem is a laudable enterprise, but obviously not enough; other studies have shown that taxes or bans are more effective, with plastic bag usage down as much as 75 to 90 percent in Ireland and Australia after such initiatives took effect.

And plastic bag litter isn’t just a problem on land. The Ocean Conservancy’s litter collection list (also posted on the Media Matters piece) places thin single-use plastic bags at No. 6 among the top 10 offenders found on beaches and in the ocean. Being No. 6 simply means single-use bags are surpassed in physical numbers by cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic bottles, bottle caps and straws and stirrers (Numbers 1-5). Add to that other types of plastic bags – trash bags and shopping bags of heavier plastic – which the Ocean Conservancy gave their own category, on the list at No. 8.

Which brings us to Morris next claim:

Members of some pressure groups claim that plastic bags kill large numbers of marine animals. Even for bags distributed in coastal cities, that claim is simply false.

While the litter claim should have raised alarm bells for Journal editors, it’s inconceivable that they didn’t notice the error in Morris’ discussion of marine life.

According to the Worldwatch Institute:

Every year, tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. The animals may mistake the bags for food, such as jellyfish, or simply become entangled. Plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, so even when an animal dies and decays after ingesting a bag, the plastic re-enters the environment, posing a continuing threat to wildlife. While most plastic bags eventually break down into tiny particles, smaller sea creatures may still eat the sand-sized fragments and concentrate toxic chemicals in their bodies.

The Worldwatch Institute did not differentiate thin plastic grocery bags from trash bags and heavier plastic shopping bags. But the Ocean Conservancy already pronounced them more prevalent than heavier plastic bags, and thin grocery bags have been found in the stomachs of birds, whales, fish and sea turtles.

There’s also no doubt that plastics in general are a threat to the seas. Marine researcher Charles J. Moore in a recent New York Times piece, “Choking the Oceans,” wrote that scientists “suspect that more animals are killed by vagrant plastic waste than by even climate change — a hypothesis that needs to be seriously tested.

After describing the islands of plastic debris floating in the ocean for “hundreds of miles on end,” he wrote:

. . .in the end, the real challenge is to combat an economic model that thrives on wasteful products and packaging, and leaves the associated problem of clean-up costs. Changing the way we produce and consume plastics is a challenge greater than reining in our production of carbon dioxide.

Which brings us back to the juxtaposition of the Journal giving voice to the “Reason Foundation” right after last month’s People’s Climate March and the United Nations Climate summit.

As we’ve already noted on JournalWatch (here and here) the Journal remains editorially resistant to giving credence to climate change. And while a story and photograph ran online in the Journal after what was billed as the Albuquerque Climate Pilgrimage, the coverage did not appear in the print version of the Journal.

The Journal then weighed with an editorial that called the UN Climate Summit “a global NIMBY moment” and essentially advocated nothing.

Without mentioning the marches in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, the editorial did acknowledge marches elsewhere, opining that:

The issue is gaining worldwide traction as a cause. And just prior to the U.N. summit, hundreds of thousands of people marched for action.

But the reluctance shown at the latest Climate Summit to actually do anything demonstrates the difficulties that lie ahead.

That was the Journal’s conclusion: “difficulties . . . lie ahead.”

The reluctance of the Journal to take a meaningful stand on climate issues – and its willingness to confuse readers with dubious industry-backed pieces like the plastic bag article – don’t do anything to alleviate those difficulties.

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