Back in 2011, a handful of participants in Western Australia kicked off the first ever Plastic Free July. Seven years later, the initiative has grown to millions of participants globally and the upwards trajectory shows no sign of slowing.

This year’s UK participants have no doubt been bolstered in both number and zeal by David Attenborough’s thought-provoking Blue Planet 2 series. But the real question is what happens now? Plastic Free July is fantastic for raising awareness and breaking habits, but it has to be maintained.

Reducing plastic consumption works well with a carrot and stick approach. The so-called “big seven” supermarkets have reported an 86% decrease in plastic bag sales since the 5p charge was introduced in England. A CEFAS study found that since the 5p charge was brought in, there has been an estimated 50% reduction in the amount of plastic bag marine litter.

Wetherspoons has already announced that it will be replacing plastic straws in its pubs with a compostable alternative. Such a move is mirrored by government plans to ban plastic straws, drink stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds. When legislation and commercial activities come together, the resulting change in behaviour can be dramatic. Perhaps the coffee cup charges will see even more significant results?

If bans and plastic-charges are the stick, then feasible alternatives must be the carrot. Zero-waste and plastic-free stores have started to pop-up across the country over the last year.

Bulk Market started as a pop-up in Hackney in 2017. The founder Ingrid Caldironi has since crowdfunded £20,000 to open a permanent shop, which will return to Hackney in late August this year. Part of Bulk Market’s brand vision is centred on the need for helping customers shop without disposable packaging. Her point is that businesses need to make it easy for people to make the right choices, which currently they aren’t.

Also frustrated by the slow progress of big brands and supermarkets is Dr Thomas Pell. Thomas opened a zero-waste supermarket in Birmingham last month called The Clean Kilo. Customers bring in their own container and pay by weight for the goods they want. His start-up is joined by Charlotte’s Cupboard, the UK’s first packaging-free shop on wheels. Currently based in Sussex, the brand has ambitions to expand beyond its local deliveries and market-days.

Local initiatives, small changes, and a little bit of extra thought are leading the tidal wave in behavioural changes. It’s clear that consumers are looking to be more eco-conscious with how they shop and it’s up to brands, big and small, to not only respond but to innovate and lead change in helping them do so.

Whilst Plastic-Free July is just one month, the principles behind it are not time-limited. In the face of continued disruption from start-ups, consumer pressure and increasing government legislation, is your brand prepared to innovate?

BY ENGINEER Joyce Esser

Joyce.Esser@thevalueengineers.com