Analysis of ‘War on Plastic’ documentary and plastic waste management in the UK

Materials World magazine
7 Aug 2019

In a three‐part documentary, war on plastics with Hugh and Anita, the BBC presented a controversial take on single‐use plastics and the flaws of recycling systems in the UK. Shardell Joseph looks into the wave of responses since the programme aired, the benefits of plastic and the challenges facing the plastic and packaging industry.

The BBC television documentary with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani, presented emotionally provocative insights into what it described as the problems with plastic, using the series as a call to arms to fight the war on plastic.

Displaying some shocking scenes of what happens to plastic waste when it is shipped overseas, the programme depicted mountains of plastic waste that could have been recycled but instead was sent to Malaysia. The overarching focus of the documentary was to reveal the amount of single-use plastic used in the UK, to explain where it ends up, and provoke changes to the way the UK uses and recycles plastics.

The documentary received mixed responses – praised for mentioning issues regarding waste management and creating a dialogue, but received criticism from the plastic and packaging industry.

The response

In light of the issues touched upon in the programme, there was a general consensus of positivity, which is important as it will require cross-industry and public commitment to tackle the breadth of problems the UK as a whole is facing.

One of the first to respond to the documentary, the British Plastic Federation (BPF) and stated that, ‘The BBC’s War on Plastic programme highlighted many important issues and clearly taps into the concerns of a lot of people. Addressing many of these issues aligns with the desires of the plastics recycling industries, namely to reduce plastic waste and improve our recyling infrastructure.’

Campaign-based environmental charity Hubbub’s CEO, Trewin Restorick, said the series ‘has landed some strong messages leaving a host of companies surveying battered reputations.

‘The focus on giving away plastic toys with takeaway meals rightly put the spotlight on our throwaway culture, while the problem of dealing with food plastic film packaging was clearly highlighted by a group of households in Bristol’.

IOM3 Polymer Society Interim Chair and member of the Institute’s Sustainable Development Group, Stuart Patrick FIMMM MRSC, told Materials World, ‘The programme clearly highlighted important issues that we all have to face and take greater responsibility for, including significantly reducing plastics that can only be used once, education on the benefits of recycling, and reinforcing the message that littering is irresponsible.’

Resource Futures CEO, Sam Reeve, joined the debate and stated that, ‘The sheer volume of plastic produced and consumed in the UK alone is immense. And where it ends up, whether it’s wet wipes in landfill or plastics dumped in a Malaysian rainforest, is unsustainable. The system is failing, and we need to act.’

However, it was not all praise - the series was criticised for presenting an unbalanced argument and received a backlash from industry experts. The three main issues thought to be missing from the documentary were the benefits of plastic, the carbon impact of alternatives, and the distinction between the grades or values of different plastics.

The BPF initiated the discussion regarding the benefits of plastics and its wide range of uses, and how the dialogue around the problem needs to shift from the issues of plastic to the issues of plastic waste management.

‘Plastic brings about many benefits, enabling many other cutting-edge technologies and keeping the weight and fuel emissions of vehicles down. It also contributes significantly to minimising food waste, which is partly why pre-packaged goods are often cheaper than loose goods. The enemy is not plastic – it is plastic waste,’ the BPF said.

Reinforcing the benefits of plastic, Reeve told Materials World, ‘You can’t demonise plastics because, actually, they have a multitude of uses. The vast majority of those uses are really beneficial to society. The issue lies with plastics waste management systems and the use of them, that's when it becomes a problem.’

Restorick said the series caused ‘the demonisation of all plastics without considering the carbon impacts of alternatives,’ and stated that this approach does not lend itself to a considered debate.

‘Highlighting the UK’s broken recycling system was important but needed to be countered with a stronger message that we need to keep recycling while the government sets about fixing the system. It didn’t make it clear enough that only the low-grade, low-value plastics are likely to be shipped to the other side of the world and consequently, left many questioning whether we should bother to recycle anything,’ he added.

Patrick also honed in on how the documentary did not take into account the impact certain alternatives can have on carbon emissions. He said they were, ‘falling into the trap of many media outlets of focusing on the material only and not considering the total amount of greenhouse gases produced by changing to alternative materials. There must also be a greater awareness of lifecycle thinking by considering the environmental, social and economic impacts when considering material options.’

Improving waste management

Regardless of the problems with the documentary, it is hard to deny that it sparked a conversation regarding what we do next to improve waste management in the UK. The complexities of recycling make finding solutions perplexing, but with copious amounts invested in R&D of innovative technologies, the plastic and packaging communities are actively working towards tackling the plastic waste problem.

Analysing the present challenges to the plastic and packaging industries, Patrick underlined some vital recycling processes the UK should look to for effective alternatives.

‘The most significant challenge is to make mechanical recycling more commercially viable so that recyclate can be price-competitive in comparison to the virgin polymer. This may also be helped by taxing packaging articles that do not contain an agreed percentage of recyclate as recently proposed by UK government.’

In addition to mechanical recycling, Patrick suggested exploring:

  • Compostability of organic matter, including compostable plastics, which is generally accepted to have few environmental issues
  • Anaerobic digestion – a process of industrial composting to yield a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide gases (biogas), water and some organic material
  • Chemical recycling – which while in its infancy, it allows the transformation of all types of plastic waste back into their original chemical components, and
  • Creating energy from waste – already well-established in Europe.

Where do we go now?

The plastic and packaging industries are forward-looking in terms of improving the recyclability of products, and how the UK can improve its waste management systems. In the response to the documentary, many viable solutions were brought into the wider dialogue.

‘To ensure a proper transition to more sustainable solutions, various time scales starting from 2020 onwards are already being discussed in UK government consultations on various plastic packaging items,’ said Patrick.

‘These include bans on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton bud stems, the introduction of a deposit return scheme for bottles and cans, and an extended producer responsibility scheme, whereby producers shall cover the expense of collection of waste and transport and treatment. They should also cover the cost of cleaning up litter and awareness raising measures. This cost will inevitably be passed on to the consumer.’

BPF added that, ‘Industry, government and local authorities need to work together to simplify recycling for people across the entire UK’.

Restorick concluded his response to the documentary and said, ‘It was great to see War on Plastics starting to make the connection between plastic production, fossil fuels and the climate crisis. This needs to be taken further and made more explicit. Somehow, we need to capture the level of engagement and emotion generated by plastics and transfer it to the climate emergency we are facing’.

IOM3 response to War on Plastics

In the aftermath of the BBC television series, IOM3 has officially responded highlighting what action needs to be taken, and what the Institute is doing to improve plastic waste management in the UK.

‘The programme clearly highlighted important issues that we all have to face and take greater responsibility for, including significantly reducing plastics that can only be used once, education on the benefits of recycling and reinforcing the message that littering is irresponsible,’ said Polymer Society Interim Chair and member of the Institute’s Sustainable Development Group, Stuart Patrick FIMMM MRSC, representing IOM3.

Regarding implications the documentary will have on the plastic and packaging industries in the UK, Patrick said, ‘the documentary prompted a much greater focus on packaging design for refill and reuse, taking responsibility for end of first life options and working with local authorities to make plastic recycling more uniform and easier to understand.

‘In the short term, the programme has reinforced the negative perception of all plastics but the sector needs to, and has been, responding with the benefits of plastics, including having light weight combined with durability, food protection combined with shelf life extension and general versatility ranging from medical use to insulation. Most of these benefits also clearly linked to recyclability in its widest definition’.

Prior to the documentary, IOM3 had called for the UK government to revisit its strategy for recycling alternatives. ‘The government needs to consider lifecycle thinking after the end of first life i.e. design for reuse or diverting from landfill, such as chemical recycling for plastic materials, which converts the polymer directly back to the original feedstock and restarts the petrochemical cycle,’ IOM3 said in a response to the government Resource and Waste Strategy Consultations back in May 2019.

‘This is probably the most efficient way to ensure that we do not release CO2 into the atmosphere in any alternative recycling options and that any changes or modifications will not incur carbon emissions in turn increasing climate change figures. It is essential that we use all materials effectively and sustainably.

‘We would like to invite Defra and HM Treasury to seek the help of IOM3 as an independent organisation with expertise from academia and industry in resource and waste strategy, packaging, polymers and sustainability.’

With the aim of supporting waste management innovation and goals, IOM3 officially became a supporter of the UK Plastics Pact on 6 June 2019, which is aligned with and supports The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s global initiative.

The UK Plastics Pact was launched in 2018 by WRAP, bringing together various organisations and individuals in the plastics value chain to change plastics for good. Other organisations signed up include the British Plastics Federation, Boots, Coca-Cola, Defra and RECOUP.

IOM3 CEO, Colin Church, welcomed this new partnership. ‘Addressing the role of plastic in our society is one of the key challenges we face at the moment,’ he said. ‘As a member of the UK Plastics Pact, the expertise and insight that the Institute can bring will help inform and illuminate the debate as well as enable us to learn from the wisdom of other participants.’

By 2025, the pact’s signatories will transform the UK plastic packaging sector and help stop plastics polluting the environment by:

  • Eliminating problematic or unnecessary single-use packaging through redesign, innovation or alternative (reuse) delivery models
  • Making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • Ensuring 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted, and
  • Achieving 30% recycled content across all plastic packaging.

As part of its commitment, IOM3 has already removed single-use plastic cups and bottles from its own venues and has introduced a recyclable plastic wrap for its member magazines. The Institute also has recently formed the Resources Strategy Group founded on 1 May 2019 as a subgroup of the Sustainability Development Group of IOM3 to focus on the role of waste in a modern economy. The aim of the group is to fully engage IOM3 with the public and policy debates on a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy.