The Attenborough effect: Searches for plastic recycling rocket after Blue Planet II

Among the multitude of pressures that cause the ebb and flow of public opinion, Sir David Attenborough’s second installment of Blue Planet was responsible for generating a surge of interest in plastic pollution and recycling, according to new research.  

The first episode of Blue Planet II, broadcast in October, was seen by over 14 million people. It went on to become the most popular show of 2017, putting it among the top three shows watched in the last five years.

The Attenborough affect: Google searches for plastic recycling rocket after Blue Planet II
David Attenborough, 91, and still making natural history programs after nearly fifty years, has a powerful presence on screen.
Episode 4 showed the harm that humans are doing to marine ecosystems through lax use of plastic in a short but emotional clip of a mother pilot whale holding onto her dead calf, possibly (it was never proven by producers) poisoned by the build-up of ocean plastic and pollutants in the mother’s milk.

In the final episode, wholly dedicated to the effects of mankind on the ocean, Attenborough addressed viewers in a sombe yet powerful scene where he issued a clarion call to action: “We are at a unique stage in our history. Never before have we had such an awareness of what we are doing to the planet, and never before have we had the power to do something about that. Surely we all have a responsibility to care for our blue planet. The future of humanity and indeed all life on earth now depends on us.”

The episode highlighted how producers for the series found plastic in every ocean they visited during production, including the remote island of South Georgia, just north of Antarctica. There discarded plastic packaging that had travelled thousands of miles was scattered around the nesting spot of rare albatrosses, regurgitated after the birds had mistaken it for food. An item as small as a plastic toothpick was enough to cause the death of one bird found during production.

The response on Twitter after the final episode aired was massive, with some tweets vowing never to use plastic bags again. The impact it had on viewers is clear from new data published by online search behavioural specialist, Hitwise. It shows that searches of ‘plastic recycling’ rising by 55 per cent following the programme’s appeal in the final episode.

There was also a significant growth in searches for conservation charities. The Marine Conservation Society saw a 169 per cent jump in traffic to its website and the number of people searching for the WWF charity increased 51 per cent after the first episode, and a 35 per cent increase in visits to the Plastic Oceans Foundation.

Luke Upchurch, WWF head of Communications Digital, spoke about the impressive reaction they had on social media during the series. “The results for us were impressive… some of the best social media engagement figures we’ve ever seen, and a significant increase in new WWF members during and after each episode. We saw Blue Planet II as a fantastic opportunity to engage the public on conservation issues. We posted on Twitter and Facebook during each episode; reacting in real time to the incredible footage and providing insights on the impact humans are having on our oceans.

“For us, this is yet further evidence that the UK public care immensely about our planet, and, when presented with easy and inspiring ways in which the can help, are very keen to play their part in protecting our oceans.”

The change in the public’s mood on ocean plastic has not gone unnoticed by those sat in Parliament. In December, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) published a report on plastic litter: ‘Plastic bottles: Turning back the Plastic Tide’. It noted the ‘increasing public appetite for urgent action in this area’, and recommended a deposit return scheme (DRS) on plastic bottles, placing a deposit on the price of bottled product which is refunded upon return.

Blue Planet may just be the most recent example of how high-profile TV shows can affect widespread change in the public awareness of recycling plastic waste. It has been a little over two years since Hugh’s War on Waste by celebrity chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall first exposed people to the non recyclable coffee cups used by the major coffee shop chains in the UK.

Fearnley-Whittingstall won Resource magazine’s annual Hot 100 poll for his efforts two years ago, which set off a national outrage resulting in cross-sector action on disposable packaging, including, coincidentally, the EAC’s report today (5 January) recommending a 25p charge on takeaway coffee cups.

This year Sir David Attenborough is among the list of nominees for the Hot 100 poll (which closes on 15 January) and looks set to be a strong contender, considering the impact Blue Planet II has had on ocean plastic and plastic recycling.

The impacts of Attenborough and Fearnley-Whittingstall show that the public wants to know how to be more sustainable, it just sometimes takes primetime access to show them the problem exists.

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