Our supermarkets are full of single-use plastic: fresh but wrapped fruit and veg, pre-washed salads and 10p ‘bags for life’ – used once, only to be forgotten and repurchased. That’s before you venture out of the food section and into the toiletries aisle with its rows of shampoo and shower gel bottles – or past the flowers by the exit, wrapped in cellophane or stacked up in plastic pots.
We know we’re all buying a lot of this stuff, but how much single-use plastic is hiding in our homes? That is the question asked by a new three-part BBC One series, War on Plastic, presented by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani.
The first episode suggests there are an estimated 19,500,000,000 pieces of single-use plastic inside UK homes right now – and Fearnley-Whittingstall reckons it’s high time we start doing something about it. What’s more, he wants us to start pressuring shops and brands into coming on the journey with us.
“It’s everyday stuff,” he tells HuffPost UK. “When we understand how alarming it is, that’s when we think: well, we’re going to have to change things properly.”
One habit within our immediate gift to change is our reliance on bottled water. The documentary explores how the nation has been seduced by marketing of its healthy properties – when most of us in the UK are lucky to have a readily available supply of perfectly good drinking water at home.
“For me, there are a few no-brainers in this show when it comes to plastics – and water bottles are right up there,” Fearnley-Whittingstall tells HuffPost.
“We’ve all had that moment when we’ve thought ‘there must be something special about this bottle of water’ – but there’s nothing special about it.”
We drink it for convenience, and sometimes for taste. But scientists in the documentary test top bottled brands and find that when it comes to mineral content, including calcium and magnesium, there is no benefit to bottled over tap water in the UK (unlike in countries where access to safe water is limited).
In the first episode, Fearnley-Whittingstall even heads out to the high street to sell bottled tap water in disguise and see if people can taste the difference.
Spoiler alert: they can’t – which just goes to show “how much we believe the bottled water marketing hype”, he says. The plastic in water bottles tends to be easily recyclable so it’s not even the worst packaging culprit compared with other products – black plastic is non-recyclable, as are many salad bags.
The good news is there are other relatively small changes we can all make that collectively add up. As well as plastic bottles, bags and disposable coffee cups, Fearnley-Whittingstall has swapped out shampoos and shower gels for solid soaps. He’s also trying powdered toothpaste – “which I’m not loving, but I’m trying.”
Reducing our reliance on plastic ultimately means less will be produced – which is a good thing, because the documentary shows even when our waste is recycled it might not end up where we think it will.
In episode one, Fearnley-Whittingstall travels to an illegal recycling dump in Malaysia where Sainsbury’s, Tesco, M&S, Flora, Celebrations, Milky Way, Asda and Aldi branding are all clearly visible in the pile. What he calls a “dystopian nightmare” is piled high with plastics that originated in UK households.
Recycling, he says, can be a “smokescreen” for businesses to hide behind. If they make products from recycled materials or that are recyclable, they are seen to be doing something proactive. But how meaningful that is varies – and if we don’t scrutinise it, we risk giving these companies “carte blanche to just go on piling into plastics.”
Just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it will be recycled: not least because many of us chuck plastic in the bin and littering is still a huge problem.
[Read More: How Many Times Can One Plastic Bottle Be Recycled?]
“Towards the end of the third programme we’re saying recycling ain’t going to cut it – we need a culture of refill and reuse and not just for water, for food.” And we need the same culture shift in our supermarkets, he adds.
Waitrose should be applauded for its packaging-free supermarket trial, he says. The branch in Botley Road, Oxford, is selling loose fruit and vegetable products and refills of wine and beer, detergent, pasta, cereals, coffee and seeds.
Fearnley-Whittingstall says it’s a good example of the sort of radical change we need to see wholesale across the whole industry.
“It has to be not just a niche thing for people who give a shit – excuse my language – but the new way of shopping for everyone,” he says. “People shouldn’t feel it’s all down to them – they should feel entitled to ask businesses and supermarkets in particular to make it easy to make plastic-free choices.”
War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita starts on BBC1 at 9pm on Monday 10 June.