Our love affair with disposable plastics has reached crisis point, with only one third of consumer plastics currently getting recycled in the UK, tonnes of plastic floating in our oceans, washing up on our beaches and even entering our food chain. Helen Skelton investigates for Tonight whether it’s possible to live without plastic entirely.

With the largest amount of single-use plastic waste coming from the grocery sector, a specially commissioned survey by Tonight revealed that:

  • 85% of people want supermarkets to simply stop selling plastic that cannot be recycled.

But a large portion of supermarket plastic, especially black plastic and protective film, is not currently recycled. Tonight reveals that widely used black plastic, often found on ready meals and ‘premium’ priced products, mostly goes to waste simply because the InfraRed sensors at processing plants can’t pick it out against a black conveyor belt.

Iain Ferguson, Head of Environment Manager for the Co-Op says the company is,

“Working to get rid of it, we have reduced the number of items in the produce aisle, with black plastic on,...we have put our premium tomatoes in card trays instead of plastic trays so that's got rid of black plastic and got something that is very recyclable... it is going.”

Tonight investigates how we can go one step further with recycling. In Scotland a bottle recycling deposit scheme is being rolled out which has already proved successful in other countries, leading to recycling rates in excess of 95%.

Consumers can return their plastic bottles for credit or vouchers from reverse vending machines. Helen met up with Iain Gulland from Zero Waste Scotland at Edinburgh Zoo.

“We are really trying to get away from as this idea of a throw away culture so instead of throwing things away and basically feeling we have no responsibility for it ... whereas both as consumers and businesses we need to change that mindset.”

Iain Gulland, Zero Waste Scotland at Edinburgh Zoo.
  • Tonight’s specially commissioned survey reveals that 75% of people would be in favour of a plastic bottle deposit return scheme for the whole of the UK.

Plastic isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as we recycle it. But with our ever busier lives the message to consumers needs to be clear and easy to understand.

Helen visited Veolia's waste recycling plant in London, a company responsible for sorting a million tonnes of waste each year in the UK - she spent the day helping separating plastic bottles for recycling.

“I don't think there is anything wrong with plastic, I don't think plastic is the enemy, but not recycling it is a bad thing...Government is talking about taxing packaging, if you use recycled content, maybe you don't have to pay the tax. And for consumers it just needs to be really kept simple. People don't have time to read big leaflets read labels on .. on you know coffee pots they need to have a really really simple message of what to recycle.”

Richard Kirkman, Veolia UK
Helen visited the Veolia UK waste recycling plant in London Credit: ITV/Tonight

But what if we could actually give up using plastic entirely? Tonight set one family the challenge to go plastic free for a whole week returning a week later to find out how they got on.

At the same time, presenter Helen Skelton also analyses her own daily relationship with plastic.

The programme looks at alternatives to plastic in the shape of award-winning company Vegware. Spokesperson, Eilidh Brunton describes how the packaging firm has benefited from a change in the law in Scotland to make food waste recycling compulsory.

They’ve come up with a range of plastic-like food packaging products that are totally biodegradable.

“By making products that are made of compostable materials it means that that whole cup and any frothy milk or any food that's left in our packaging can all go into one bin and they will be taken for commercial composting...which can be put back in agricultural life.”

Eilidh Brunton, Vegware
Vegware are a range of plastic-like food packaging products that are totally biodegradable. Credit: ITV/Tonight
  • In our Tonight survey, 87% of people said they believed packaging producers should use biodegradable materials as an alternative to plastic.

Tonight has put together a list of tips to help shoppers cut down on their plastic consumption:

  • If it’s plastic and its black, put it back.

  • Refill = Less landfill

  • Wipe out wipes.

  • Say no to straws

  • Carry a cup

  • Loose means less!

Useful links:

The Rubbish DietZero Waste ScotlandMSCUKBeach CleanVegware

  • Plastic: Can You Live Without It? will air on Thursday 15th February at 7.30pm on ITV

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