Making sense of microplastics? Public understandings of plastic pollution
This paper explores people’s knowledge and understandings of microplastics; the role of media in framing perceptions and socio-cultural dimensions to popular solutions to reduce single-use plastics. We conducted 6 focus groups (2016–17) involving participants with no obvious knowledge of microplastics and some with special interest. Most people were unaware of microplastics though environmentally conscious participants had heard of microbeads due to media reporting concerning regulation. Few made connections between their personal use of plastics and ocean pollution. Plastic pollution was associated with macro-plastic ‘islands’ in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and powerful media images of charismatic wildlife entanglement remote from participants lives. The scale of microplastics (not easily detected), poor understanding of the science behind microplastics and cultural ideas about healthy and appropriate behaviour presents barriers to change. Science communicators, NGOs, industry and policy makers must take account of media representations and the culturally embedded nature of plastics in society.