The BBC’s War on Plastic series has landed some strong messages leaving a host of companies surveying battered reputations. The eye-opening visit to an Ineos plant, which produces one third of the  plastic made each year in the UK, demonstrated how cheap shale gas is transforming the economics of plastic, putting it on course to becoming a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

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

The programme did also hit false notes. The demonization of all plastics without considering the carbon impacts of alternatives does not lend itself to 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 whilst 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.

Given this context what are Hubbub’s five key takeaways from the programme?

1. Let's have a proper conversation about reducing plastics

We are awash with needless plastics from giveaway toys to seasonal decorations, which we have become socially programmed to buy but often have limited enjoyment of before creating a significant long-term environmental problem. As a society we need to start questioning what our relationship with plastic signals about our throwaway culture, and shift consumer driven compulsion from attempting to buy happiness and instead consider other ways to celebrate and show our affectionate and caring side.

We can also take simple action in our daily lives. Food waste has a range of social, financial and environmental impacts including generating unnecessary plastic waste. Manufacturers and retailers could help their customers and reduce plastic waste by building better communications and support on this important subject. 

2. How can we effectively build reusable containers into the shopping experience?

Retailers know that they have to drive a significant change of shopping habits by making it easy and compelling for people to use refillable or reusable containers. Hubbub has started on this journey with Starbucks through a reusable cup trial at Gatwick Airport. Waitrose & Partners have just begun a trial of an ‘Unpacked’ store in Oxford. 

These are early steps and require people to change their behaviour and supermarkets to rethink the shopping experience that they deliver. We are certain to see more trials over the coming months – hopefully this will start to shift the social norm and create more seamless solutions that are part of the regular shopping experience. It will be particularly interesting to see how this develops in the fast-growing home delivery market.

3. The debate around plastic needs to become more sophisticated

There are a huge range of plastics. Some like plastic bottles are relatively easy to recycle, we have capacity to do this within the UK and these plastics could well offer the best environmental solution for carrying liquids. Others, like plastic film, are difficult to collect, are hard to recycle and pose problems for the recycling industry. Somehow, we need to start making this distinction clearer to the public, highlighting the importance of creating a UK based circular economy that can handle the plastic that can be easily recycled and avoid undermining people’s confidence in the recycling system.

4. We need to talk about ‘hidden plastics’

It is all too easy to focus on the easy-to-see plastics such as bottles and straws. Arguably a bigger environmental threat is from the plastics that are part of our daily lives which we can’t see. These microplastics are small enough to infiltrate our food systems, we are aware of their existence but currently have little idea of their impact on our health. Sources of these plastics include textiles, tyres and cigarette butts. The debate needs to be broadened to cover these items if we are serious about addressing the impact of plastic pollution.

5. Let's have a war on fossil fuels

Highlighting plastics is a great way to get people engaged in the environmental debate as it is part of everyday life and the impact it has on nature leads to highly emotive photos. However, it is a narrow perspective on the wider environmental debate. Focussing solely on plastics can also lead to perverse solutions – for instance do we really need drinking water in cans?

It was great to see “War on Plastic” 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. If the BBC can do that we will be making significant progress.