Seven things sustainability professionals can learn from Hugh and Anita's War on Plastic

The BBC's docuseries exploring how the public, government officials and corporates are fuelling an unsustainable demand for plastics concluded on Monday (24 June). Here, edie highlights seven key lessons that the series can teach sustainability professionals.

Here, edie rounds up seven key lessons that Hugh and Anita’s War on Plastics was willing to teach. Image: BBCBBC/KEO Films/Tom Beard 

Here, edie rounds up seven key lessons that Hugh and Anita’s War on Plastics was willing to teach. Image: BBCBBC/KEO Films/Tom Beard 

Hugh and Anita’s War on Plastic is a step back from the format used by shows such as Blue Planet 2 and Drowning in Plastic. Less concerned with the global threat of plastic production from the outset, the show sees presenters Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani focus on an “average British street” in Redcar to assess just how much single-use plastic the general public have in their homes, where this plastic originates and what it is used for.

From here, viewers are taken on a journey to see how everyday interactions with plastics are wrecking the planet, from Malaysian dumps via hostile security guards at McDonald’s.

The show equips viewers will facts on plastic that are well-versed for those operating in the corporate sustainability sphere. However, the show offers not only an insight into how consumers view plastics, but also how sustainability professionals can use this ever-evolving zeitgeist to push the sustainability agenda to greater heights within their own operation. Here, edie rounds up seven key lessons that Hugh and Anita’s War on Plastics was willing to teach. Enjoy.

1) Cost and convenience rule supreme

Despite the growth in plastics awareness and climate activism, sustainability still isn’t a mainstream differentiator when the majority of consumers choose who they shop with. While they might answer surveys claiming sustainability is an important factor, the War on Plastics series was able to get into the mindset of an everyday shopper, and it is here that sustainability ranks behind cost and convenience.

Between the Redcar 22 homes, residents had amassed 15,774 single-use plastic items. Crucially, almost one-half, or 7,145 of these items, were from the kitchen – mainly in the form of single-use plastic packaging for food and drinks.

Fearnley-Whittingstall estimated that if these findings were scaled up to cover all of Britain, the public are likely to have 19.5 billion pieces of single-use plastic packaging in their homes – almost 8.2 billion pieces of which are likely to be in kitchens. When citing why they purchase single-use plastics, residents responded that it was either more convenient, cheaper or both.

During a meeting with Tesco’s group quality director Sarah Bradbury, Rani placed two sets of three bell peppers from Tesco on the table. One set, the pre-packaged option, was priced at 91p. The loose set cost £1.65. Even by the end of episode three, the number of packaged tomatoes outnumbered loose versions by almost 8:1.

The lesson here is that while small-scale changes are welcome, the public has a predisposition to purchase plastic that won’t change if only sections of the product offering are actually changing.

2) Recyclability is the new greenwash

The McDonald’s website notes that Happy Meal toys can be recycled, as can any battery-assisted toys. “The ‘crossed out' wheeled bin symbol on either the Happy Meal toy or the toy packaging indicates that this is an electronic toy and means that this toy can be recycled rather than disposed of as waste. Battery powered toys will need to go into a designated 'WEEe' bin for waste electronic and electrical equipment,” the company states.

However, during discussions with workers at a recycling facility, it turns out only a “tiny” proportion is actively recycled, and it is rarely economically to do so. In fact, it was revealed that McDonald’s was the biggest distributor of plastic toys, at 1.4 billion annually. While these items are technically recyclable, corporates know that a citizen placing said item into a recycling bin won’t lead to the item being recycled.

As we saw too often during Hugh’s War on Plastics series, corporate responses to plastic queries are a bit too rehearsed. Promises of “absolutely” understanding the issue and willing to implement change at a “competitive price” just leave the public confused and unsure.

Companies need to be willing to explain their plastics strategies in an in-depth and transparent manner that points them towards industry-agreed targets such as the New Plastics Commitment. In a business sphere where science-based targets are now viewed as a necessity, business may want to explore what a science-based plastic strategy would look like.

3) Creating new partnerships is key

Collaboration has always been a buzzword for sustainability professionals, but as more businesses incorporate CSR, more partnerships are opening up. Businesses will now find themselves collaborating with companies outside their sector, arguably firms that they haven’t crossed paths with before.

During the first episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall enlists the help of UK truckers to help raise awareness about the lack of refill stations across UK petrol forecourts and service stations. Rather than taking on the battle himself, Hugh leaned on the expertise and social reach of these truckers to create awareness far greater than he could in isolation.

In the battle to save the planet, you’ll find that making unlikely friends will uncover insight that may have been ignored otherwise.

4) Current action is a drop in the ocean

Recent WWF research concluded that the amount of plastics produced, littered and incinerated globally is set to rise “dramatically” by 2030.

The NGO claims that the next 11 years will involve a further 104 million tonnes of plastic “leaking” into ecosystems and the overall CO2 emissions generated through the plastic life cycle increasing by 50%, as plastic incineration trebles and alternatives are introduced before any unintended consequences are examined in full. 

For this trend to be reversed, WWF claims, policymakers, businesses and consumers must collaborate to “drastically change” their approaches to the issue. While the edie website focuses on the success stories of brands taking a leadership approach, the BBC series showed that even those brands aren't immune to PR issues - as seen with products and bags from household names ending up in an illegal dump in Malaysia.

The good news is that collaboration on plastics action seems to be becoming more common by the day, with numerous initiatives aimed at helping corporates collaborate on a pre-competitive level having launched since Blue Planet 2. WWF itself recently unveiled ReSource:Plastic – a  scheme aimed at helping businesses to translate their plastic reduction pledges into measurable impacts. Other similar schemes include the Plastic Leak Project, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy commitment.

5) Plastics is a climate issue

If plastics was the zeitgeist of 2018, then the climate emergency has made a strong claim to 2019’s most pressing issue. For sustainability professionals, plastics were viewed as an ideal door into the world of sustainability; a way to make staff or stakeholders more aware of the green transition’s potential impact.

As the final episode showed, there is a murky hidden link between the world of plastics and climate change. Plastics account for 6% of global oil demand and therefore have a great contribution to global emissions. By 2050, the plastic industry could account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions

For those trying to use either climate change or plastics as a gateway to engage other areas of the business, it isn’t a case of focusing on one or the other, plastics have a key role to play in the battle against climate change, and should be viewed as such.

6) Activism is the next era of sustainability

While current action isn’t ambition enough, there is some good news. Last night’s show focused on the mountain of discarded promotional plastic toys, many of which are freebies from fast food restaurants and magazines. The episode sees two young girls outlining why their petition to get fast good giants such as Burger King and McDonald’s to rethink the environmental impacts of their giveaway toys.

Nine-year-old Ella McEwan and her sister Caitlin, seven, have an online petition that is raising a lot of interest. “It made us very sad to see how plastic harms wildlife and pollutes the ocean, and we want to change this,” the petition reads, which has had more than 167,000 signatures at the time of writing. As Anita puts it, “McDonald’s may have underestimated the power of young girls”.

The action from these two young girls mirrors a growing trend that has already captured global attention in the conversation on climate change. Youth climate strikes, driven by the inspirational Greta Thunberg, have changed the conversation on climate change to one of a climate emergency that has, most recently, been recognised by the UK Government and their new net-zero target.

Through social media and the growing popularity of these environmental docuseries, activism has a 24/7 platform to thrive and grow – a constant and relentless opportunity to knock at the doors of brands and demand action.

In regards to plastic, the public doesn’t view sustainability as a nice-to-have or a differentiator. It’s business critical. Just doing the right thing isn’t enough and brands that can efficiently showcase activism across many CSR areas will likely retain better consumer relations.

7) Circular economy is about the size of the circle

The circular economy is becoming a key business operation, as companies look to move away from the current linear production model.

However, as lead plastics campaigner for Friends of the Earth Julian Kirby, who’s been modelling possible futures for plastics, rightly stated in last night’s episode, production of closed-loop products isn’t accounting for the size of the circular economy. Over a 10-year period up to 2016, global plastic output has increased from 245 million tonnes to 348 million tonnes. According to the PlasticsEurope trade association, production increased by almost 4% in 2017. By 2020, it is expected that the global plastics industry will be worth in excess of $650bn.

Incorporating more post-consumer recycled content or improving the circularity of products doesn’t mean that the world produces less stuff and businesses will need to transition products and services to closed-loop models, but also limit the number of products and services on offer.

Research shows that the stuff we consume — from food to material goods — is responsible for up to 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 80% of total land, material, and water use. Around 80% of this impact is found down the supply chain of production, as companies seek to fuel the insatiable consumerism demand.

Matt Mace



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