In late September and early October 2019, a very specific claim involving Christmas crackers (a tradition involving devices called “party poppers” in some countries; they are made from cardboard and gunpowder, generally contain confetti or toys, and pulled apart causing a tiny, festive explosion) and 154 million pieces of plastic circulated on many social media platforms.
A pair of posts on Facebook separately approached six-figure share counts in a five-day window. The more popular of the two was shared on September 28 2019:
Two days later, a second post appeared and featured a tiny doll’s comb. The text was identical to the previous post, right down to the teary emoji:
Please join me in boycotting Xmas Crackers this year. 154,000,000 pieces of plastic crap will end up in landfill or our oceans from the UK alone ????
The 154,000,000 plastic bits from Christmas crackers statistic was also shared to GransNet; Twitter users similarly referenced a very specific 154 million pieces of plastic in one year (2019) from one narrow source (Christmas crackers):
One tweet also featured the tiny green doll comb, but showed up after the Facebook post above:
Instagram accounts also spread the message, urging followers not to contribute to the 154,000,000 pieces of Christmas cracker ocean plastic yet to be discarded in 2019:
For all the mentions of the 154 million figure in relation to Christmas crackers awash across social media in October 2019, we were unable to turn up anything substantiating it — just repetitions of a nearly identical boycott request that was, incidentally, also engagement-baiting gold. In a Change.org petition, a 13-year-old boy called on major UK retailers (Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Tesco) to “ban the sale of Christmas crackers with plastic novelties.”
Although holiday favors known as Christmas crackers (which are very common in the UK and Ireland) were part of the rumors, the other had to do with the increasing concern posed by ocean plastic. Numerous countries responded to concerns about ocean plastic by reducing use of plastic straws and single-use shopping bags.
In December 2018, the figure of 154 million appeared as an answer to a question [PDF] in a holiday-themed UK primary school newspaper. And in December 2017, UK tabloid The Mirror published an article titled “Brits will pull 154 million crackers this Christmas and spend £19 BILLION on presents.”
Although that article referenced a “study” as the source of its figures, it actually described a small phone survey of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom. That survey was conducted by British Airways to form the basis of an infographic to be distributed to press so their airline would receive publicity. British Airways claimed to find in its survey:
[The average Brit will] … Pull three Christmas crackers (154,017,483 nationwide) and hear three cheesy cracker jokes (154,017,483 nationwide)
British Airways published a blog post about its survey, purportedly conducted and publicized in December 2017. However, neither the press release nor the blog post explained how they arrived at the 154,000,000 Christmas crackers figure:
Brits will spend more than £19 billion on presents, eat 308 million slices of turkey — and pull 154 million crackers this Christmas, a study has found.
A year later, Wired‘s UK site repeated the British Airways press release figure without substantiating the figure from other sources (such as sales figures or inventory news) in a larger article about an eco-friendly Christmas:
The same goes for Christmas crackers, as the reported 154 million that we pull annually in the UK are nothing but cheerful landfill. “Crackers are the ultimate in consumer throwaway society writ large,” Childs says. Consider buying crackers that you fill yourself with useful items, rather than junk that will be binned or lost behind the sofa in an hour.
The same month, a completely different Facebook post by a completely different brand used partly the same number — 154 tons — as the purported amount of plastic in all the oceans on the planet. Once again, the figure appeared without a citation or reference to how it was calculated. And 154 also appeared in a BrandChannel.com article from 2016 about ocean plastic cleanup efforts, in that context referencing the purported size of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
[The company’s] technology could potentially remove nearly half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—now 154 million pounds of trash—in 10 years, compared with current efforts, which would take about 79,000 years to accomplish.
As of October 2019, USA Today reported on recent size estimates for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of plastic, floating trash halfway between Hawaii and California, is more than 600,000 square miles in size. That’s twice the size of Texas and is the largest collection of plastic in the world’s oceans … The patch is not a solid mass of plastic. It includes about 1.8 trillion pieces and weighs 88,000 tons — the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets.
In the space of under a week, UK social media users spread a claim that 154,000,000 pieces of ocean plastic were created in just one year (2019) due to the use of Christmas crackers alone. Although the underlying motive — to reduce ocean plastic — is not problematic, it appeared to derive its numbers from self-generated publicity for British Airways in 2017. No aspect of the airline’s infographic had to do with the weighty subject of environmentalism, as it seemed geared to drawing interest with its “Christmas by the numbers” approach.
We could not substantiate that British people use 154,000,000 Christmas crackers each year, and even if that (likely inaccurate) figure was correct, it wouldn’t result in 154,000,000 pieces of ocean plastic precisely. We were unable to locate any estimates about the true number of Christmas crackers opened in the UK each year, much less the formula that would tell us how many pieces of ocean plastic would result from them. It is certainly likely that inexpensive plastic novelties contained in Christmas crackers are fated to add to ocean plastic, but there does not appear to be any reliable gauge of how pervasive that problem might be.