Is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall actually winning his war on waste? Last autumn the Eton-educated eco-warrior told us off for binning 16 per cent of the food we take home and hammered supermarkets for insisting upon cosmetic rules for fruit and veg so stringent that some farmers are having to give up farming. Now TV’s tormentor-in-chief is after Amazon for its over-packaging, and coffee companies with unrecyclable cups.
“It makes a massive difference to have a camera rolling when you’re talking to people who could run their businesses differently,” he says, admitting that he revels in the process by which he holds the powerful to account. “I do enjoy composing that email that I think will put the supermarket in a tight spot.”
The earlier episodes of Hugh’s War on Waste have already begun to change things for the better. Supermarkets are redistributing more surplus food to the charity sector and Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons have all developed small-scale ranges of imperfect-looking fruit and veg, while Asda has expanded its offering.
“The real battle is cosmetic standards, which need to be relaxed across the board,” he says. “That’s starting to happen” – Lidl and M&S are among those credited in the film – “but we don’t want the super- markets claiming that offering wonky veg is ‘job done’. Shoppers also need to show they will buy less-than- perfect produce.”
Fearnley-Whittingstall is under no illusions as to what he’s up against. “If you want to get into the underlying philosophical problem here, it’s a model for capitalism: just drive it as hard as you can, work your suppliers off against each other on price, on quality and everything else and the fittest will survive. But if 20 to 40 per cent of our food crops is being wasted, it’s not just a terrible waste of our food, it’s a waste of all the resources that went into that – the oil, the power, the transport, the manpower.”
Next in his line of fire are the companies who make our coffee, and he’s armed with another shocking statistic. In the UK, 2.5 billion coffee cups are disposed of annually, and hardly any of them are recycled. He’s determined to convince the likes of Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero that this is more than just a storm in a coffee cup.
Early in the programme we discover that a typical throwaway cup is made with waterproof- ing polyethylene, which doesn’t allow the card- board to be recycled by most of the UK’s plants. But because we assume the cups are recyclable, many of the 7 million that are binned every day are contaminating the recycling bins we mistakenly throw them into.
During a visit to an inventor’s workshop in London, Fearnley-Whittingstall is shown a new type of cup with a liner that allows for the cardboard component to be isolated and recycled. Persuaded that a solution exists, he calls on coffee drinkers to put pressure on the big brands to effect achievable change.
At the very moment he was recording his voiceover for the programme, a manifesto – to which the big coffee companies have signed up – was released pledging to ensure paper cups are designed, used, disposed of and collected to maximise the opportunities for recycling.
“It’s not what we’ve asked,” Fearnley- Whittingstall sighs, “which is: ‘Will you commit to fully recyclable coffee cups by a certain date?’
It’s couched in the usual woolly terms, which potentially allows them to shirk the responsibility. It’s basically like saying, ‘Right, this coffee cup thing, we’re all going to deal with it, right? Right!’”
As for Amazon, which oversees the delivery of millions of our purchases every month, he is adamant that the company can do better at minimising waste and cutting down the journeys required.
Even though he discovers that in the US it is trialling an improved bit of kit – Box on Demand – to produce right-sized boxes to package products more efficiently, he’s not won over just yet.
“As to how far it will go to solving the problem – I don’t think we’ll know until it’s used [in the UK]. So I think Amazon should respond with a timeline for bringing it here, and some prediction of how much packaging and energy it will save.
“I think we’re winning some battles,” he says, “and perhaps most importantly, the battle to persuade people that waste matters, and that both individual actions and corporate actions can make a lasting difference.”
We might just have to call it a draw for now.
Hugh’s War on Waste: the Battle Continues is on BBC1 at 9pm on Thursday