Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani Review their War on Plastic

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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani follow-up their BBC One investigation into single-use plastics with a challenge to British businesses and families to go plastic free.

It’s over a year since Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani launched War On Plastic, where they investigated the enormity of the ‘single use’ plastics crisis, and looked at what we can all do to help solve it.

In this follow-up episode, Hugh and Anita ratchet their efforts up a gear, as they take on the companies that make tea bags and sandwiches, continue the battle with fast-food companies and their plastic toy giveaways, and challenge a British family to do go plastic free on a budget.

We eat around six million pre-packed sandwiches every day. Hugh wants to know what happens to all the plastic-lined packaging. Are they as widely recycled as the on pack label suggests? He is horrified to discover the industry is not as transparent as it seems.

We also drink around 100 million cups of tea every day. Anita has heard that tea bags may hide a dirty plastic secret. Experiments in a lab confirm her fears and give her the information she needs to confront the brands responsible.

And we all know that doing a weekly shop, without accumulating bin-loads of plastic, can be expensive. Like most of us, the Oliver family from Berwick shop on a budget but also want to go plastic free. They challenge Anita to show them whether making innovative switches can really help solve the plastic problem, without costing the earth.

But then coronavirus hits, and the use of single use plastic around the world increases dramatically. In hospitals and care homes this makes complete sense, but what about the rest of us? Anita and Hugh investigate whether it is any safer to buy fruit and veg wrapped in plastic, and discover the problem with single-use disposable plastic masks.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani Q&A

How was your experience filming this instalment of War On Plastic?

Anita: It felt great to be back. The response to the first three shows was huge so I’d often get asked if we were filming any more. However, we’ve only just begun the war against plastic, so making this show felt important.

Hugh: It’s been fantastic to see more and more people walking around with reusable shopping bags, coffee cups and refillable water bottles. But sometimes it feels like these successes are just the tip of an enormous plastic iceberg. There is still so much more work to do to remove pointless plastic from our lives. This new episode rightly celebrates the progress we have made, but also opens the door on some new problems – including some that have really been bugging our audience!

War on Plastic has really resonated with the nation and sparked a tremendous amount of engagement with #ourplasticfeedback, why do you think that is?

Anita: The nation was ready for this show. We all watched in horror at David Attenborough revealing what plastic is doing to our oceans, and we needed to know what we could do about it. War On Plastic took the next step. The #ourplasticfeedback initiative empowered people, it gave the great British public a voice.

Hugh: I think that most people want to live a more sustainable, environmentally conscious life. But it’s really hard when, for example, the supermarkets don’t make it easy for us to shop with less plastic and even harder if they insist on charging more for the privilege! So when we gave people the opportunity to express their opinions under the umbrella of #ourplasticfeedback, it was fantastic – but perhaps not all that surprising, that so many people jumped on board.

What do you think about Burger King’s commitment to ban all plastic toys from their kids’ meals?

Anita: Woohoo! What a result! This is a very positive step and a strong commitment from Burger King. It just goes to show the people have power when we come together and when the public are outraged and get a bit between their teeth, change can happen.

Hugh: It’s fantastic, and Caitlin and Ella, the two young campaigners who we filmed, deserve all the credit – along with the hundreds of thousands of supporters, including BBC viewers, who backed their petition. It just shows what can happen when the public get behind something and demand change for good. The big corporations have to listen!

What do you hope this instalment of War on Plastic will achieve?

Anita: It’s been a tough time for everyone, but now that we are getting into the rhythm of the new world we can remember the importance of sustainability. If once again we come together, we can make change happen. We need big businesses and government to make bold and important decisions to get single use plastic out of the system.

Hugh: The Coronavirus pandemic means that we are all living in a very different world to the one we were in when we started making the programme. So much has changed, there are new unexpected challenges, and it’s become a tragic time for far too many people. But I am hopeful that as we are all forced to re-evaluate our lifestyles, people might decide that they don’t want to just go back to the old and wasteful ways of doing things. Perhaps I’m being too optimistic, but wouldn’t it be great if programmes like these got people to think differently about how we live in the future?

How important do you think it is to have conversations on plastic waste with people like Claire Hughes, Head of Quality and Innovation at Sainsbury’s?

Anita: They are hugely important. These are the people that make decisions to do things differently and better. It’s their job to think about the future and every big business, especially supermarkets need to think ethically and sustainably.

Hugh: It’s vital. Plastic pollution can sometimes feel so enormous that it quickly becomes overwhelming. I find it much easier to think about if I can break it down into manageable chunks. I say to myself, OK I can’t fix it all, but if I can talk to this person, maybe they can fix the bit that they can control. And if that happens, it inspires others to do the same, and it inspires me to keep on going! It’s great when you talk to the people in a business because you realise that on an individual level, almost everyone cares, and wants to make things better.

Clare was great. She is engaged and passionate about the subject, and genuinely wants to help make progress for the good of the planet. I’m sure she will keep driving things forward at Sainsbury’s.

What are a few things viewers can do in their daily lives to reduce their plastic footprint?

Anita: No more carrier bags. Try to cut out single use plastic wherever you can. I understand everyone has different priorities and choices based on how much they have in their pocket but once you make small changes it becomes second nature and you feel great for having done something to reduce you plastic waste. I’ve gone back to having milk delivered by a milk man, I shop locally at a green grocers and I don’t buy water in plastic bottles.

Hugh: Become aware of what you consume, and how much plastic you throw away. It really helps to store it all up and have a look at it all at the end of the week. Once you see it all for the problem it is, it becomes much easier to start making little changes that help deal with it. Carry a reusable water bottle, re-usable shopping bags, and your own refillable coffee cup. Then you can go to the next level: buy loose fruit and veg instead of the stuff wrapped in plastic.

Look out for refill shops, not just for food but for toiletries and cleaning products, and give them a try! The experiment Anita ran with the Oliver family in Berwick proved that going plastic free doesn’t mean you have to spend more.

What was your most shocking discovery when making this instalment of War On Plastic?

Hugh: I heard a rumour that the sandwich industry were terrified that we were going to come and do a story about sandwich packs. So, of course, we started looking at sandwich packs… and they were right to be worried! I think it’s an absolute scandal that they get to put ‘widely recycled’ labels on their sandwich boxes, when in reality the plastic lining bonded to the cardboard packet makes it almost impossible to recycle sandwich boxes properly.

Yes they are trying to improve things now, but to be honest I’m yet to see any of the big players come up with a solution I can really get excited about. The important thing is to put these things in front of the public – they are the ones who can make a real difference and I hope they will get on the sandwich pack case.

How has the coronavirus pandemic contributed to the plastic pollution problem? Has it made it worse?

Anita: The commonly used blue single-use surgical masks contain polypropylene, a type on non-recyclable plastic, and if every person in the UK was to wear one of these every day for a year, that would create about 128,000 tonnes of plastic waste. If not disposed of responsibly, they end up in landfill and our oceans. In the show I catch up with Professor Mark Miodownik, an expert in material science to find out more about the role of plastic in this pandemic.

Hugh: Obviously everyone’s number one priority right now is to keep themselves and their families safe. But the evidence I’ve seen suggests that using more single use plastic in our everyday lives doesn’t help us to do that. We definitely don’t need to wear plastic gloves – in fact they give us a false sense of security. They can just as easily be contaminated as our hands – and so it makes much more sense to simply wash our hands.

We don’t need to buy those single use disposable masks (which a lot of people don’t realise are actually made of plastic) – we can buy reusable washable masks (or make our own!) which are just as good and don’t contaminate the environment. It’s no safer to buy fruit and veg wrapped in plastic either – we just need to wash it well when we get it home. It’s understandable that people feel safer when they’ve got a plastic layer between them and the world right now. But outside the world of hospitals and care homes, it doesn’t actually help us live our everyday lives.

I hope after watching War On Plastic: The Fight Goes On, people will start to change their habits, committing to reusable masks and resuming their commitments to reducing single use plastics.

BBC One – War On Plastic: The Fight Goes On