Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the TV chef who changed the way we eat, is taking on his biggest battle yet: to end our addiction to plastic. Bryan Appleyard meets him.
"I wouldn't last five minutes in my own kitchen," admits Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall over lunch in the private dining room at his River Cottage Kitchen restaurant in Bristol. "I'm just too messy — and probably not on it enough to run a service."
It's true: in 1989, he was sacked as a sous-chef at the uber-groovy River Cafe in Hammersmith for being too chaotic and slow. He hasn't really been a working chef since. Instead, he became a TV food star with a very specific message: think about what you eat.
It was a message that was smuggled into all the variations of his River Cottage branded shows on Channel 4. "In the end," he explains, "it all boils down to just making sure you get the story of where the food comes from. In lots of areas of life, a story is what people need."
Then he decided not to smuggle any more. He became an outspoken and devastatingly effective campaigner. His shows have transformed the way we eat and shop. Hugh's Chicken Run alerted us to the cruelties of factory farming — and of the tastelessness of the end product. Hugh's War on Waste made us aware of the criminal amount of food we throw away. Britain's Fat Fight embarrassed us by showing how not caring about food made us eat too much of the wrong things.
Now we have War on Plastic, a four-part BBC1 documentary series presented by Fearnley-Whittingstall and the eager Anita Rani. The fourth part happens a year after the first three, when they and crew will return to ask their interviewees whether they have done what they promised. It's a threat — and a shaming device.
"If you're knocking on the doors of businesses, ministers, governments and so on, it's important that they know you're coming back," he says. "Because otherwise they can bluff you — they can bluff you for the run of three, and then the story just peters out.
"So, with plastics, we can go back and see precisely whether Tesco, having decided to trial more produce without plastic — have they rolled it out? [UK Environment Secretary] Michael Gove, having said he would commit to the 'extended producer' obligation [that would force manufacturers] to pay 100 per cent of the cost of dealing with their packaging — is he actually going to do it? Will he even be in office? We don't know. But will somebody do it — will somebody live up to that commitment?"
This campaign may well turn out to be Fearnley-Whittingstall most important and effective yet. Plastic is one of the most urgent environmental problems we face. More than 8 million tonnes of plastic enters the oceans every year.
More than half comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand. None of this decays naturally. It simply accumulates in the oceans, killing fish and other sea life — either by blocking their digestive systems or because they become entangled. By 2050, one study suggests the weight of plastic in the seas will be greater than the weight of fish.
When the plastic is broken down into small nodules — known as microplastics — fish consume them, and we eat the fish. Other plastic pollutants were designed to be tiny: microbeads of the stuff are used in toothpaste and face scrubs. Microplastics infect more than just the sea. In April, French scientists found particles had rained down on the Pyrenees: they have become an airborne pollutant. We humans are now certain to be carrying around plastic particles in our bodies, with as yet unknown long-term health effects.
The big problem is, we're addicted to plastic. No wonder: it is durable, hard-wearing, light and cheap. And most of it is recyclable — but this is a game at which everybody cheats. It's cheaper to dump than to recycle. In Malaysia, Fearnley-Whittingstall finds plastic mountains full of British supermarket bags.
Stopping companies cheating on their recycling would be a first step. "However good we get at recycling," he says, "we're really bad at it at the moment. In the petrochemical industry and the plastics industry the resistance is to reduction. They're smartening up a lot of their talk about recycling, and they're telling you that a lot more of their plastics are from recycled materials."
This bragging about recycling, he says, is designed to conceal the simple fact that they intend to produce more and more plastic.
So how do we all break the plastic habit and force companies to change? The first answer is to avoid single-use plastics, and to reuse plastic containers you already have: shopping bags, milk and water bottles, coffee cups, cleaning material containers and so on. In the first show, Fearnley-Whittingstall and Rani get the residents of a single street to lay out all their single-use items. The total is 15,774, which suggests there are 19.5 billion bits of singe-use plastic in circulation across the UK at any one time.
The British government has announced a ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. It will take effect from next April, and sales of plastic plates and cutlery will be prohibited the year after.
The second answer is to take control. One suggestion from the New York Times Wirecutter site is you should have a portable kit of reuseables: a stainless-steel coffee mug to avoid the plastic-lined ones they give you in coffee shops, and brew your own coffee at home; reusable boxes and bags, for any food you buy when you're out and about, and so on.
Don't buy liquid soap unless it is in glass jars. Buy refillable spray bottles of cleaning fluids. Reject plastic straws. Buy non-plastic nappies. Use matches, not disposable lighters. Don't chew gum that has plastic content (old-fashioned chicle gum, made of tree sap instead of polymers, is making a comeback). Crucially, buy food loose, not wrapped in plastic.
One of the most shocking facts in War on Plastic is that unwrapped supermarket food is more expensive than wrapped. For supermarkets, plastic boxes and bags are easier to transport, stack and label with expiry dates than loose items. Loose food requires more complex handling processes and monitoring. One easy gesture you could make is giving the supermarkets their plastic back.
In his latest series, Fearnley-Whittingstall rips off packaging from food at a supermarket and hands it back, demanding that it be recycled. We should stop drinking bottled water, he says.
Getting us to pay thousands of times what we pay for the stuff that comes out of our taps is one of the greatest con tricks of contemporary capitalism. To make his point, Fearnley-Whittingstall disguises himself as a hipster, puts tap water in plastic bottles printed with a fancy name and hands it out in the streets. Everybody likes it, thinking it must be really healthy — and it is.
There could be a technical fix to reducing the amount of plastic waste. The great climate scientist James Lovelock in his new book, Novacene, argues that "it should not be difficult to trigger their automatic disintegration into water and carbon dioxide — we should be seeking such technologies".
But it all costs money. Meanwhile, plastic is cheap.
It has to be produced in vast quantities to make real money — hence the mania for selling single-use plastics. These are the real killers. We depend on plastic — it saves lives in hospitals. So we can't get rid of it all, but we can certainly eliminate single-use.
"Plastic isn't all bad," Fearnley-Whittingstall says. "Plastic doesn't have ethics. Plastic is neutral. It's what we do with it and whether what we do with it is sensible, defensible, smart, outrageous."
None of these industries will go quietly into a low-plastic future. Hugh sees this clearer than most. A revelation about coffee cups got him started.
"Like everybody else, I thought that your paperish coffee cup was recyclable. And it isn't — because of the inseparable plastic lining. So we kind of broke that story in Hugh's War on Waste in 2015. It became quite a big story. There's just something convenient for the manufacturers and the coffee companies that use these cups — they're cheap and easy to make, but they totally screw up the entire recycling system."
His mother, Jane, is a writer and garden designer, twice a gold medal-winner at the Chelsea flower show. His father, Robert, was born into a line of clergymen and lawyers, but went into advertising. Hugh was sent to Eton, in the year between Boris Johnson and David Cameron. He then studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford. He is unquestionably very bright but also very lucky.
He has been married to Marie Derome, a French journalist, since 2001. She didn't like the cameras always being around during the River Cottage series, which were filmed at their home, but is a good baker, according to her husband, particularly of sourdough. They have four children, the oldest of whom, Chloe, is adopted. She was the daughter of the BBC journalist Kate Peyton, who was shot dead in Mogadishu in 2005. "It's been an amazing, lovely adventure, with an extremely tragic start to it," Hugh says.
I ask him who is the best of the other TV chefs. He looks reluctant, but I get him to agree on Rick Stein. "Brilliant, yeah. I reviewed his restaurant at Padstow, for Punch — God, 30 years ago at least. It was like being in the most sophisticated city, there was great music, stylish art, beautiful food, and yet you were literally a stone's throw from where the fishing boats were pulling up. So it was sort of like New York or Milan or London in a little fishing village. It was an electric feeling."
But his true mentor is the late, great chef-anarchist Keith Floyd. As soon as he says this, it makes sense. "I was a massive fan of Keith Floyd — that thing of taking cooking out of the studio and into the real world. Keith Floyd went out there and stumbled around on fishing boats, shoving great slabs of monkfish in the galley kitchen, telling his cameraman, 'Come on, stick your camera in that'."
Fearnley-Whittingstall was clearly the new Floyd when he started out. Long-haired and a bit podgy, he shoved his food in your face. But since the campaigning really got going, he sleeked himself up, which he credits to running. Now, aged 54, he has a perfectly respectable haircut and looks fit, but for an attack of tendonitis in his elbow — he had spent an hour and a half peeling a pile of bramley apples with his daughter last October.
Meanwhile, the conscience rages on. How does he feel about the Extinction Rebellion movement that recently brought central London to a halt?
"I watch what they're up to. I've done a bit of social media in support. Certainly in terms of awareness raising, they seem to have finally got some attention. There was a sort of weird period when [David] Cameron came to government, talking about his little wind turbine on top of his London house and how they were going to be the greenest government ever. And then somebody at some point, a few years later, said, 'Guys, it's time to cut the green crap.' Everyone just seemed to shrug. We were in recession, there were all sorts of anxieties and momentum was lost."
It is clear that all Fearnley-Whittingstall's campaigns are converging.
Banning plastics, eating less fish and meat, and global warming all turn out to be the same thing. His project is now global — delivering authentic action to heal a wounded planet. This may be impossible, but, as Robert Browning wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"
UK multinational petrochemicals company Ineos is plastics central; Fearnley-Whittingstall is intent on shaming it.
"Ineos, along with the rest of the industry, plans to grow the plastics business by 30 per to 40 per cent over the next 20 years," he says. "Everything that it's doing looks like it's building for growth of its current core business. It's hard to see how someone like Ineos can crack on with their core business if everybody decides, including government and their clients, that they actually do want less plastic in the world, not just recyclable or adapted or altered product. These companies are hugely rich. They have vast amounts of money that they could be spending on research."
Research into making biodegradable plastic, for example. Ineos has to bring about a "circular economy", where 100 per cent of its polymers can be recycled and reused by 2025, and its product ranges contain 50 per cent or more recycled content. Fearnley-Whittingstall argues this is not the whole answer, because if the recycling circle keeps getting bigger, the problem worsens.
"Plastic has a huge value in our society," says Ineos. "We are not talking about straws and stirrers, but the plastic that is used to make cars lighter and more fuel efficient, water and gas pipes that don't leak, medical applications that are sterile, into building insulation, in composites for renewable energy, and food packaging that keeps food fresher for longer. As society grows, so will the need for products that it relies on. As we tackle climate change, plastic is the best material. But it is what happens to plastic at the end of its life is where we all have a role to play. And Ineos is playing its part."
Why all the campaigns and wars of attrition? What drives Fearnley-Whittingstall's unquenchable conscience? When he was 6, his parents moved the family to the countryside. He was amid the wildlife and plants, but there was a darkness in this paradise.
"There was a brutality around — these were the days when you'd come across a bit of barbed wire that would have crows and weasels and things strung up, put there by gamekeepers. Also, some of the kids I knew would do strange and brutal things. If we found a bird with a broken wing, my inclination may have been to take it home, put it in a box and see if anything could be done. But others around me, their reaction to that would be, let's throw stones at it. And I do remember feeling very upset by that, but not wanting to lose face.
"It may not be the absolute origins of my conscience, but it's very formative. Once you've done something that you feel ashamed of, that's going to sit with you very, very deep. At some level as an adult you're looking for ways to atone for that. I'm sure I did join in the stoning of the bird with the broken wing. And, much as it repelled me to do so, I've been making up for it ever since, maybe."
As he says, it can't be the whole story, but the child wounded by an act of cruelty is resonant, especially when his upbringing was such a paradise of privilege.
"However good we get at recycling, in the petrochemical industry and the plastics industry the resistance is to reduction"