15 Jan 2023
A new paper by Francesco Degli-Innocenti argued that mass media misrepresented a home compost study by the University College London (UCL).
The UCL report used citizen science to assess the effectiveness of compostable and biodegradable plastics in home composting across the UK. The researchers found that participants were puzzled by the labels ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ plastics.
They concluded that this confusion was one of the primary reasons for incorrect compost disposal.
However, other researchers criticised the study for failing to consider other variables in its methodology, such as the lack of proper compostable certification.
Degli-Innocenti, a senior advisor at a bioplastics and biochemicals production company, suggested that the study was also misrepresented by the mass media.
Lack of understanding
The use of citizen science, a method of data collection using members of the general public in collaboration with professional researchers, has grown in recent years. Various fields have applied the methodology, including environmental, ecological, and marine sciences.
While there are experts who understand the use of citizen science and the differences between it and quantitative methodologies, Degli-Innocenti suggested that mass media misunderstood citizen science when broadcasting UCL research.
Degli-Innocenti’s paper, entitled “The difficult relationship between science, citizen science, and mass communication: A negative example,” highlights how mass media has misread the UCL research as a scientific “truth.”
Quotes within the UCL paper were announced as quantitative facts rather than the result of a qualitative study. Degli-Innocenti speculated that this may be due to ignorance of the methodology and the data.
“It is not a scientific study that deals with the interaction between materials and a biological process,” Degli-Innocenti said about the UCL study.
“But rather it is a scientific study on the attitude and behavior of a group of volunteers regarding home composting and compostable items.”
Issues with study
While misunderstanding from journalists played a large part in the study’s misrepresentation, researchers critiqued other parts of the research study’s methodology as well.
In one example, researchers found that the specific compostable items in the experiment were not given to the participants.
Participants “furnished themselves independently,” resulting in a lack of control items in the experiment. This could lead to participants testing any kind of compostable material without any clear through-line.
Furthermore, participants were not trained or “calibrated” on the nature of compostable items. Along with the variety of compost items used, the lack of training could have led to the confusion detailed in the UCL report.
The participants also consisted of volunteers instead of a sample selected from the wider population, leading to a more focused but less representative research result.
Managing director of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), David Newman, echoed other researchers’ critique of the study.
Newman pinned UCL’s misunderstanding of the time required for home composting as the central issue of the problematic report.
“Citizens were not told to only put in materials certified ‘home compostable’ and to discard all the rest,” Newman said.
“They were told to use plastic meshes to view the samples although these naturally slow down any biodegradation process; they were not instructed on retention times but allowed to extract compostable residues after as little as a few months.”
Newman also criticised the mass media’s demonstration of the research result, calling the media’s representation “a comprehensive demolition” of the UCL study and its methodology.
“A key finding here is that those testing ‘home compostable’ products were not even provided with the same or similar materials. Each citizen participant was left to find their own ‘compostable’ products, without any checks on whether the items tested had even been certified to industry standards,” Newman said.