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.

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


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

Comments (15)

  1. Keiron Shatwell says:

    The big issue I have had with this series of programmes is there has been no (or very little) discussion on alternatives to plastic. It is all well and good focusing on the waste in the plastic world we live in, why on earth does a cauliflower need a plastic bag (especially a non recyclable one)? However what about alternatives we can switch too? The real eye openers were the piles of UK waste in Malaysia and the 16 tonnes of waste wipes Bristol produced in 3 days.

    Plastic itself is not a problem material. Single type plastic can be recycled readily and when used for durable packaging or goods plastic is often the very best material. It is hygienic, inert, durable and most of all lightweight. That reduces the amount of energy needed to transport goods which in turn reduces "carbon foot prints". Glass milk bottles needed reusing something like 30 times to become energy neutral but a plastic milk bottle, rinsed and recycled uses a lot less energy in transport. Sometimes the alternatives end up being worse for the environment because they require more energy to transport. Microfibre cloths replacing wipes sounds good until you realise the microfibres are made of synthetic (plastic) material too, ever wash of that cloth releases fibres into the water system of course.

    There is no simple fix other than for each and everyone of us to radically change our attitudes to life. As we all want cheap and convenient the market for plastic will continue. When demand drops companies like Ineos won’t need to manufacture as much and if a proper recycling regime can be found that allows for new plastic to be created from old then maybe, just maybe, a balance can be found.

    Oh and by the way it wasn’t a Redcar street but a Bristol one.

  2. Roger Munford says:

    Good summary and also a good comment from Keiron.
    I found myself agreeing with the Ineos exec that the problem was not plastic but plastic in the wrong place (putting aside other issues like energy etc)
    Responsibility for packaging ultimately rests with local authorities as part of traditional waste management. This is where the problem lies. Each and every local authority has to decide on what is done with every piece of packaging at almost no expense to the producer of the packaging. Recycling targets are too low and optional and collection and recycling has to compete with all the other local authority services.
    The new waste proposals by the government wont change that. There is a realisation that producers should bear more cost and responsibility which isn’t really much of a big idea but everything else stays the same with local authorities perhaps getting more funding but still packaging will be dealt with within local authority borders.
    Local authority borders are meaningless when it comes to the flow of shopping reaching households. Tesco decides how its goods are distributed based on population densities and transport links not on the local authority boundaries.
    When the packaging flows in the other direction from households to recycling it should also depend on population and transport links. Local authorities should be cut out of the chain.
    Germany did this decades ago. Every household in Germany has a free unlimited yellow bin for packaging only. Independent of the local authority. The collection and recycling is paid for by a small fee levied on the packaging.
    This system ensures that every piece of packaging in every part of the country has a route to the recycling process. Even litter bins on the tops of mountains are financed by this fee. Theoretically it is 100% coverage and leakage is due to the human factor.
    As a bonus, the fees are scaled according to how difficult the packaging is to recycle. Card is cheaper than plastic. There is a built in incentive to use the minimum amount of packaging. As an example look at the thin plastic yoghurt pots with a cardboard strengthener.
    This would work in the UK. It would also take a lot of expenditure out of local authorities but I am sure the government would take that back.

  3. Simon Drury says:

    Roger / Keiron your points are well made, and as we know the retailers and supermarkets have made some real progress went it comes to packaging volume, but as you say there is still a lot of room for improvements. Whilst some package real does add value , by reducing wastage and extending shelf life, I can’t but help notice how much progress has been made on secondary packaging, that which is taken of in stores and generally back hauled to the distribution hubs for recycling as apposed to primary packaging. Our retails have made great inroads in to specifying the nature and materials which are entering their waste streams to optimise their recovery rated and reduce instore handling times.

    When in comes to primary packaging the progress has been much slower, with the exception of a few flagship brand, significant amounts of products are still frequently over sized and specified on appearance and brand over function. The mine is bigger and better value or quality to the rest on the shelf mentality.

    Hopefully, whilst it did have its flaws, this series and the profile of ocean plastic, Carbon Zero, and the Greta Thunburg effect with help change purchasing patterns and the price of PRN’s and the future impact of a plastic packaging tax and extended producer responsibilities will all help focus attention as much on the packaging waste that is placed in consumers bins and drive the move away from materials with little or no viable recovery market.

  4. Paul Foulkes-Arellano says:

    Interesting to read comments from "outside" the plastics reduction world.

    The world’s biggest brands and retailers started to take reduction and replacement seriously at the tail end of 2018, and in the first few months of 2019.

    Anyone who is working at VP/Board level with big fmcg will know just how many substitutions are being made. This work takes years to see the light of day, but we are getting announcements on a regular basis. The touch paper has been lit.

  5. Ethan Clarke says:

    Plastic itself is not a problem material".

    Until the recycling rate of all types of plastic meet satisfactory levels and aren’t prompting War on Plastics programs as such, I disagree, it is very much a problem material. I agree with the valuable properties of plastic, but we must also factor in the total carbon footprint, from cradle to grave. How do you quantify the carbon footprint of a plastic bottle in 1 of the many plastic mountains in Indonesia? Is the mountain the end of life? Burnt (for energy)? Landfilled? Recycled? What the war on plastic program highlighted was the total lack of due diligence and until we know that, it’s fair to assume the worst case scenario – burnt and landfill. When you factor that in, and the loose shipping containment C02 footprint from the UK to these far reaching countries, I’d argue there is little point wasting your time other than for completeness to compare it against the total C02 footprint of an aluminium can or other materials.

    In any given case, I’d argue that recycling plastic can never be the answer to the plastic problem. Where we actually manage to recycle a tiny proportion of plastic, it returns as polyester, carpets and fleece. Items I would deem to be far worse when you consider the microfibers and micro plastics. How do you recycle micro plastics? Recycling plastic back into its original form has no commercial value.

    What irked me with the program was when it came to the clothing microfiber segment. Sustainable clothing is a very touchy subject and Hugh dodged it well – it summed up the 3 part program. There is no easy answer and the only way out of this growing mess is a cultural shift in the way we think about the life cycle of goods. We have become a throw away nation, the world is becoming a throw away nation. Even with the best waste producer responsibility reforms, nothing will change. We need more organisations like Waitrose and the unpacked initiative to just step up and JFDI.

  6. Dave Stanley says:

    All credit to Hugh. He is the first high-profile figure that I have seen to state the blindingly obvious that plastics are produced by consuming fossil fuels and is therefore a very significant Global warming/climate change issue.

  7. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Dave – Plastics are created from hydrocarbons which can also be fossil fuels but not necessarily. Polypropylene for instance is made from Propane which is a hydrocarbon gas sometimes used as a fuel (Calor Gas for instance). Many other longer chain polymers are made from hydrocarbons that have no or little use as a fuel source. And to be fair pretty much everything else we produce and consume uses fossil fuels somewhere in the chain.

    However, fuels are used to manufacture the polymers and at present much of this is Methane (Natural Gas) but there is nothing to stop Ineos installing a massive solar farm, installing wind turbines offshore and building hydropower to provide the energy required. And I would hazard a supposition they may even have that on the books as a plan for the future.

    We, as a society, have to learn to separate fuels from feedstock. Not all oil or gas is used as fuel. It’s around 50/50 at present and getting less on the fuel side as we switch to alternatives. We can’t keep wasting it by simply burning it as it is much more valuable as a petrochemical feedstock for many everyday things, such as the circuit boards in my laptop, medical equipment that saves lives, even the materials that make solar panels and wind turbines. Not to mention the plastics that go into making an Electric Vehicle.

  8. Bob Latham says:

    Excellent comment from Roger Munford on the governance of collections comparing UK with Germany.
    What I am commenting on is the elephant in the bin- plastic packaging and other forms of plastic consumption are simply functions of… consumption. No amount of improved recyclability or collections will really address the fundamental issue that consumption , the growth of which underpins our economies and ways of life, must be reduced. The plastics debate is simply the top layer, both literally and metaphorically, of a consumptions lifestyle that is getting out of control. Every piece of "problem plastic" has a long tail of resource consumption and transport behind it. I seem to recall the figure of 70 kilos of resource needed for 1 kilo of consumption at end user.
    How do we wean ourselves off excessive consumption? Not sure quite frankly that it can be done via appeals to individuals. This is where (brave) government and regulation comes in : proper taxation of externalised costs currently foisted on to the planet and the public including a price for carbon; increasing the cost to on line retailers of delivery and returns (up to one third of all clothing orders…) restrictions on advertising volumes/locations for disposable fashion ( we do it for cigarettes and alcohol). And no doubt many more ideas that libertarians would cry foul at. The irony is that unless economies make the necessary adjustments there will be little left of those economies for gainsayers to protect their interests. And yes if you ask, I keep my clothes for many years, and it shows, they are still good as they were made to last….

  9. Mark Felton says:

    To some extent it depends on how dangerous nano and micro plastics are. They seem inevitable and unavoidable if we use plastics at all. We perhaps can limit losses of large plastic bits and reduce the damage they do to acceptable levels. I understand the evidence of harm from nano plastics is pretty incomplete but not absent. If the harm is as serious as that caused by CFCs on the ozone layer we will have to find safe replacements. This is likely to be from cellulose and lignin from wood or seaweed, and maybe we ought to do more of this anyway to avoid fossil carbon sources where possible.
    I do agree that our consumption based economic model will remain a challenge

  10. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Bob – yes you are correct. Our consumeristic economy is the 500lb Gorilla that no one wants to admit to. While our economy is based on buy shite we don’t need with money we don’t have there will continue to be a massive problem. I’m with you on making things last. I have a 20 year old Gore-Tex jacket that still looks as good as it did the day I bought it and still keeps me dry in the very wet climate of the NW Highlands.

    @Mark – Odd you ask about alternatives to plastics as my wife and I were out kayaking yesterday and noticed that our oaty bars were packaged in "non plastic packaging" that was "compostable in domestic composters". If this company (Stoates) can do this why can’t more of our packaging be made this way? Not only reducing the amount of plastic we produce then dispose of but also preserving the raw materials (oil and gas) for those more vital synthetic products that save lives or simply cannot be made from alternatives (for various reasons including safety).
    One thing about microplastics is they are slowly but surely being removed from the oceans by sedimentation. I know at present we are creating more than is being sedimented but the process is ongoing. These ocean sediments eventually get recycled back into the molten mantle of the planet via subduction. Might present an interesting set of new rocks when all this plastic gets erupted from a volcano at some time in the future. Will also present future geologists with an interesting dating tool as we know plastics didn’t exist before 1940. Being able to pin point the exact date of a sedimentary rock like that is a geological Holy Grail. Yes I am a geologist before you ask 🙂

  11. Roger Munford says:

    @Keiron if you a geologist you might be interested in the following although this is way off topic

  12. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Roger – yes I have read this and added my evidence to the debate. It’s still all a bit up in the air right now but there is sufficient argument for the Anthropogene to be created as a sub division of the current Holocene Period. Certainly the global appearance of plastic in sediments and fall out from the post WWII atomic weapons tests give a potentially very clear geological marker, as clear as the K-T Iridium layer that marks the end of the dinosaurs around 63 million years ago.

  13. Ray Skinner says:

    One issue which became clear was none of the big firms e.g. manufacturers of wipes and similar products were prepared to move until they were forced to i.e. they were all scared of reductions in profit – that was not said but was the root issue. None were true leaders and were ‘expert’ at greenwash.

  14. Keiron Shatwell says:

    @Ray – That is why it is up to us, the consumer, to change our shopping habits. While people continue to purchase single use, plastic wipes, throwaway clothing and other such products companies will continue to produce them and make a profit.
    If we don’t buy them the companies will lose turnover then, and only then, will they produce more sustainable versions.
    Hit them where it hurts and change attitudes with your wallet

  15. Ray Skinner says:

    @keiron – I agree 200%. That though takes 0,000s of decisions and actions – less than a handful by manufacturers, and a few more if left to the retailers. And that seems a lot simpler, although not easy.

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