BBC’s ‘War On Plastic’ – Did it present a fair argument?

Last week, the BBC aired its documentary ‘War On Plastic – The Fight Goes On’, an informative one hour programme highlighting issues with plastic waste and ‘single-use’ plastics. The programme, which saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani looking at ways to tackle what they call “the UK’s plastic waste problem”, was a follow up episode to the first series, broadcast in 2019 , including issues during Covid-19.

The programme rightly tackled many issues with plastic waste, however the British Plastics Federation (BPF), along with many other industry specialists and experts have called into question whether it was a balanced argument.  The issue Cromwell Polythene and like-minded businesses and professionals have is that this programme did not provide a full evaluation of the plastic situation. Viewers were presented with the negative impacts, which can be caused when plastic is not disposed of, re-used, or recycled correctly, however it didn’t address the many benefits which plastics provide us with, or consider the alternatives which have a higher carbon footprint and are worse for the environment.

The BPF’s statement in response to the programme said: “Leaving the environment in a better state for future generations is extremely important andprogrammes like War on Plastic are rightly encouraging people to think about how everyday decisions can make a difference. However, calling a programme ‘War on Plastic’ does not suggest a balanced evaluation of a complex situation and seems to suggest that the material should be condemned in all applications. In fact, plastic is an enabling technology that is vital to almost every major industry. As we have stated before: the enemy is not plastic, the enemy is plastic waste.” You can find the full statement from The BPFhere.  

Since it aired last week, many waste, recycling, and plastic industry specialists have scrutinised the programme, jumping to the defence of plastics and highlighting the benefits which the show did not speak of.

Plastic is the far ‘greener’ material in comparison to its alternatives of glass, metal, and paper. A number of studies, including new research ‘Examining material evidence – the carbon fingerprint’, commissioned by Veolia and published by Imperial College London, indicate that, in terms of carbon emissions, production levels, and resources, plastics have the lowest levels compared to glass, metal, and paper, which use far more of the earth’s resources to produce and recycle. Plastics have also been a life-saving material in the past few months with the current Covid-19 situation, helping to save lives whilst protecting people and preventing the spread of illness, something that the other material options would not be able to do.

As rightly stated by the BPF, the enemy is not plastic, it is plastic waste.  We are very keen to remind everyone that ‘single use’ is not a requirement but a choice. Nearly all plastic items described as single use can and should be used several times, from water bottles and containers, to plastic bags. Plastic is such a strong, sturdy material that if we take care of these items, they can have a longer life span than the ‘single use’ handle suggests. Re-using items is the first step to tackling the waste, the second is correct recycling. Most plastics are easily recycled – many in the kerbside recycling. Even ‘harder to recycle’ plastics can be reprocessed into new materials for different applications. Where recycling of plastics is not technically, environmentally, or economically practicable, the calorific value can be recovered through burning in energy from waste plants.

Whilst the programme made some valid points about overpackaging on some items, it was wrong to employ shock and awe tactics, using material-specific statistics for plastic packaging and failing to mention how those statistics would look for alternative materials.

It’s important to remember the wider issues, it’s not all about the material, it’s about how we handle products in use and what we do with them afterwards, people make litter and it’s not a problem exclusive to plastics.  Although plastic may be seen as the enemy by some, other materials are also prevalent although not as visible in our oceans.

Plastic is not the issue, the problem is plastic in the wrong place – as waste.