Plastic: we’re all very aware of it and many of us are taking steps to reduce our use and recycle it. But do you know how much new plastic we’re using in the UK every year and what happens to it after you’ve dutifully recycled it at home?
Our habit is turning rivers and oceans into a type of plastic soup, and it’s blighting the planet, according to War on Plastic, a new BBC One documentary series featuring Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani.
Here are five eye-opening things we discovered about plastic via the show.
1. There are 19,500,000,000 piece of plastic inside UK homes.
Unless you’ve recently ditched plastic altogether, we can almost guarantee that a peek inside your kitchen or bathroom will reveal a lot of the stuff. From detergent sprays to milk bottles; butter tubs to fruit cartons; shampoo bottles, toothbrushes and shower gels – plastic is everywhere.
The War on Plastic team convinced residents of one road in Bristol to bring out all the single-use plastic in their homes into the street. Researchers then set about counting every single item – and the result was shocking. “Once you start digging it feels endless,” Hugh says, sifting through people’s belongings.
Collectively, residents on that single street had 7,145 pieces of plastic in their kitchens, 5,241 in their bathrooms, and 3,388 single use items from everywhere else in the home and garden, including DIY materials. In total, researchers counted 15,774 pieces of single-use plastic. Multiply that by the number of households in the UK, and the programme argues that there are 19,500,000,000 pieces of plastic inside UK homes at any one given time.
2. We’re turning the world’s waterways into “plastic soup”.
“Every single minute of every single day a truckload of plastic is finding its way into the world’s oceans – and once it’s there it sticks around for hundreds of years,” explains Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
In episode one of the series, we watch a truck pretending to dump plastic into the sea – highlighting the fact that much of our litter finds its way into streams, rivers and oceans. And, Hugh explains, what’s really troubling is that lots of plastic isn’t even visible because over time it has broken down into microscopic pieces and is now passing up the food chain - from fish, to humans.
3. The rubbish from your bin at home is turning other countries into a “dystopian nightmare”.
You’d think that the recycling you dutifully rinse and sort into your recycling bins would be properly disposed of, right? In the documentary, we hear about a Greenpeace investigation which discovered that household recycling is not always being dealt with properly, and is even finding its way to illegal dumps in Malaysia.
Visiting one site, which Hugh describes as a “dystopian nightmare”, he finds mountains of recycling that’s come straight from our homes – with Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S, Flora, Celebrations, Milky Way, Asda and Aldi branding clearly visible. There are also council recycling bags from Wales, Essex and Milton Keynes – and the volume of plastic waste is predicted to increase three fold, Hugh says.
A local campaigner shares a message for the UK: “Please do not dump what you don’t want on our backyard, you are rich and we are a developing nation”.
4. We’ve all been seduced by bottled water marketing – and it’s costing your wallet and the planet.
We’re needlessly drinking bottled water when we have drinkable water on tap, and it’s time to instead swap to reusable bottles, says Hugh.
When you pay £1 or £2 for a bottle of branded water you’re paying for just that: a brand. Scientists tested top water bottle brands and found that when it comes to mineral content including calcium and magnesium, there is there was no benefit to drinking bottled water in the UK.
Hugh even headed out to the high street (in disguise) to sell bottled tap water in order to find out if people could taste the difference – spoiler: they didn’t. “[It] shows how much we believe the bottled water marketing hype,” he says.
5. The supermarkets could do a LOT more to reduce plastic use.
We hear a lot about the measures supermarkets are taking to reduce plastic – whether that’s introducing packaging-free aisles, or swapping plastic microwave meal packaging for cardboard. But, the documentary shows, supermarkets could be doing a lot more to make it easier for shoppers to cut back.
The researchers bought a basket of goods from the UK’s largest supermarkets – Tesco and Sainsbury’s and bought the same items packaged and without packaging. They found there was a price difference (of 42% and 19% more expensive respectively) – with the loose goods costing significantly more.