Plastic just got drastic

Friday, 5 July 20195 minute read

An amazing three part BBC documentary shocks the nation into action

Pure Planet’s Alice addresses the plastic crisis, with a little help from Hugh and Anita.

From Hugh Fearnely-Wittingstall and Anita Rani came the BBC documentary “War on plastic”, where the issue of single use plastics was brought a lot closer to home — my home, in fact — a street in East Bristol, just a two minute walk away from where I live.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should. The third in the series aired this week, but it’s on iPlayer until the end of November 2019.

Families laying out their used plastic in the middle of their street (Credit: Bristol Post)

Tipping this typical terraced street’s contents out like a giant rubbish sack, Hugh and Anita exposed the infiltration of plastics not only to our cupboards and bathrooms, but into the food we eat and the air we breathe inside our homes.

Hugh amidst the plastic mountains (Credit: edie)

Anita less than impressed (Credit: BBC)

Even if you’re carefully washing and bagging your recyclable plastic in your council’s designated bags, it could still be sold onto one of the five countries (China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) that currently contribute to more than half of the oceans’ plastic.

It’s not really OK that we’re selling our waste to countries with insufficient infrastructure to process it, and seeing our well known UK brands strewn across an abandoned wasteland with a watercourse straight to the sea, in a developing country in South East Asia — is hard hitting stuff, which it’s great to see getting air time.

One of the plastic tips in Asia (Credit: The Grocer)

For the UK, our own buying habits are put into the spotlight. To reduce the amount of plastic packaging on your food products currently means going without some of them, and paying more for the rest.

We know that food has a significantly higher carbon footprint than the packaging it comes in — up to three times as high — but when plastic gets into the natural environment, especially into the world’s oceans, it’s a huge challenge to clear up.

Many major brands are now running trials of more sustainable options for packaging and bagging our regular plastic-coated purchases, from the first Waitrose ‘refill’ store, to Boots paper-only bagging, to Tesco’s loose fruit and Veg trials — to name the headline acts.

The Waitrose ‘refill’ store (Credit: BBC)

Almost all of the UK’s major supermarket chains have signed up to the UK Plastics Pact, which launched in April 2018 and aims for one, to* “ensure 100% of plastic packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025”,and more excitingly “Eliminate problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (re-use) delivery models”*— perhaps our future won’t be plastic-free but rather an industrial washing system of reusable supermarket-owned plastic, loaned out and returned, on loop. After all, plastic was a product invented to reduce our consumption of other materials — something that takes less energy to make, move and maintain than it’s natural alternatives.

The Ineos factory in Grangemouth (Credit: BBC)

From the factory furnaces of plastic production in the UK, to the potently plasticised single use wipes and toiletries seeping into the water course via our loos and washing machines — You can feel a little like Dr Suess’ Lorax as the Onceler hacks down the last Truffula Tree!

Credit: Animation Magazine

So to lift the mood here’s a few inspiring examples of what’s happening on the other side…

  • The Ocean Cleanup project claims to be able to remove 90% of ocean plastic by 2040, by an energy neutral process. Here’s how they do it. We’re committed to supporting the UN SGDs, one of which looks at life below water. So this is a big deal for us.
  • Microbiologists are researching bacteria with the ability to eat plastic.
  • The theory of The Plastic Bank: a worldwide chain of stores where everything from school tuition fees to cooking fuel and more is available for purchase in exchange for plastic garbage — which is then sorted, shredded and sold to brands who reuse “social plastic” in their products.
  • Many plastics can’t be reused due to additives mixed with them — enter PDK the new endlessly recyclable plastic — assembling plastics that take recycling into consideration on a molecular level.
  • University of Limerick are researching technology that allows plastic to be recycled into a high-tensile fibre that can then be woven into a fabric and used in the construction of cars and planes.
  • The list of plastic alternatives grows ever bigger, stronger and more available — And, even though the biodegradable plastic cup I was handed at a BBQ recently, shrunk in the heat and wouldn’t stand up, my hands remained completely dry.

The street in Bristol — Verrier Road in Redfield — made an overall reduction of 42% of it’s single use plastic in four months, which feels like there’s actually a lot we can do right now to reduce our single use plastic footprint. Hopefully it’s helped us all to see the presence of plastics in our lives, more like significant red dots — something to handle with care.

This month is #PlasticFreeJuly. Looking for an easy way to get involved? Join in on our plastic free challenge. Here’s how to get started.