Surely not, I thought. Why is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall overseeing a fleet of bin lorries emptying their rubbish over the edge of a promenade and into the sea? As each one lined up and disposed of its load of plastic waste over the side I was yelling at the TV: “Stop! Stop! How could you?”
And then came relief. The camera pulled back to show it was falling, not onto the beach but into a large container. What a way to open a programme. Shock tactics. Grab the viewer in the style of a good crime drama. It worked.
Fearnley-Whittingstall, celebrity chef turned environmental campaigner, used the exercise to show us that a lorry load of plastic waste is dumped into the sea every minute. That must have made even the most carefree viewer sit up and think about all the plastic containers in their fridge. While many of us now willingly recycle, we are being duped into thinking its all being safely turned into patio furniture. In fact much of it is being shipped to the Far East and left to fester in huge plastic mountains or get washed out into the oceans.
Aside from exposing this scandal, the opening episode of War on Plastic focused on the bottled water industry with a lab technician showing that it had no better health qualities than tap water. Fearnley-Whittingstall even bottled his own tap water, named it Tapineau, and donned hipster gear to offer free samples to unwitting consumers of branded bottled water who were stunned when he revealed its source.
Fearnley-Whittingstall said a key reason why plastic-bottled water is so popular is because it is easier to obtain: at the supermarket, corner shop, petrol station. By comparison, trying to get tap water proved difficult and he enlisted a troupe of truckers, armed with refillable bottles, to encourage the oil companies to put water on tap for motorists.
While Hugh toured the Malaysian dumping grounds and the motorway service stations of Britain, his co-presenter Anita Rani (Watchdog, Countryfile), pictured, was challenging the supermarkets to reduce packaging and explain why food bought loose cost more than food wrapped in plastic.
The response from the supermarkets and the oil companies was that they would take these concerns on board. It would be easy to be cynical and doubt that nothing will change, but this series has the potential to change attitudes and provoke action in the same way as Richard Attenborough’s Blue Planet which shocked the world over the way plastic waste is polluting the oceans.
While we are all deemed culpable in creating the plastic problem, a theme running through War on Plastic was the sense of confusion and helplessness we all share about tackling the issue. It exposed the snail-like response and lack of pro-activity by industries which are causing the problem and the weaknesses in public policy to deal with it. With 400 councils having 39 different recycling policies, consumers are baffled by what they can and cannot recycle. Most damning off all is the fact that plastic waste that we thought was being recycled is being shipped overseas and out of sight, much of it is dumped in fields and rivers. It wouldn’t be so bad if was being left to rot. But it isn’t, because it can’t.
War on Plastic, BBC One