The Corner

Law & the Courts

Reporters, Politicians, and Activists Are Relying on Environmental Research Conducted by a 9-Year-Old

Reason Assistant Editor Christian Britschgi has been hot on the trail of one of my favorite stories of the new year. Yesterday he reported on an absurd California bill that would criminalize offering plastic straws to restaurant patrons. If the bill passed, waiters would have to wait for customers to ask for a straw or face potential jail time. Yes, jail time. 

So, what kind of environmental crisis justifies such a draconian step? How about the “fact” that Americans are using a staggering 500 million straws per day. That’s more than one straw per American, per day. That’s a lot of straws. That’s a lot of plastic. 

But don’t tell Britschgi that a fact is too good to check. He checked, and the results were . . . hilarious:

The 500 million figure is often attributed to the National Park Service; it in turn got it from the recycling company Eco-Cycle.

Eco-Cycle is unable to provide any data to back up this number, telling Reason that it was relying on the research of one Milo Cress. Cress—whose Be Straw Free Campaign is hosted on Eco-Cycle’s website—tells Reason that he arrived at the 500 million straws a day figure from phone surveys he conducted of straw manufacturers in 2011, when he was just 9 years old.

What the actual heck? Surely this statistic isn’t in widespread use. Surely a California legislator was simply relying on poor staff work. Right?

Well no, Britschgi did more digging and found that at least 15 major news organizations had used the 9-year-old’s work, including prestige outlets like CNN, the Washington Post, Time, Reuters, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. The stat has also been touted by the Sierra Club and the National Park Service. 

Reading some of the articles, it looks as if the citation of the statistic in one authoritative place — like the National Park Service — was enough for citations elsewhere. This is at least partly understandable. Journalists rely on information from government agencies all the time, and it’s proper to use a statistic and cite a seemingly-authoritative source. But no one looked at a number that big and wondered if it was bogus? The National Park Service looked at it and said, “Yup, seems right”? It seems absurdly high. 

Good on Christian Britschgi for doing the legwork that other reporters failed to do. Now, let’s ask the important question. Does California want to jail waiters to halt a crisis created by the environmental research of a 9-year-old?

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