As Plastic Free July enters its twelfth year, what has been achieved and what does the future hold?

We often make a big song and dance about plastic pollution, but more so at this time of year, for Plastic Free July. We love getting behind PFJ because its mission resonates so deeply with our own business values and our belief that many individuals making small, habitual changes can have a tremendous impact.

Raising awareness alone is essential, and PFJ is a huge driver of this. The plastic problem seems obvious to the changemakers and eco activists – it’s so easy to forget that we weren’t always aware of it. Not everyone knows that plastic is putrid, and if they do, they may not yet have stumbled across a reason as to why they should care, or the ways in which they can make simple, affordable change.

This is why PFJ is so important: it pulls the green movement down from its high horse, connects with the individual and provides a raft of practical, plastic-free solutions, encouraging people to do what they can with what they have, even if they can’t afford an electric car or $80 lunchbox. With Plastic Free July now in its twelfth year, we wanted to examine the impact of the past decade and a bit, and whether the future for plastic is as bleak as we hope.

Plastic Free July was established in 2011 in Western Australia (yes, we Aussies can boast Pana Chocolate, Crowded House and PFJ). Brainchild of Rebecca Prince Ruiz and backed by a small team in local government, the idea for PFJ came after Prince Ruiz toured a local recycling facility and was astonished at the sheer volume of waste processed at just one plant. The movement has grown to become arguably the most prominent global environmental campaign, winning awards for its influence and expanding in 2017 to become the Plastic Free Foundation, a not-for-profit charity. All of this is pretty on paper, but in terms of real-world impact, what has PFJ actually achieved?

PFJ’s most glittering achievement in its first decade was a huge growth in awareness of the plastic crisis, and of the limitations of recycling plants to manage the crisis (only 9% of all plastic produced has ever been recycled). As Prince Ruiz puts so poignantly, ‘plastic production is set to almost quadruple by 2050 – we can’t recycle our way out of this problem. To create a world without plastic waste, we need to turn off the tap, not mop the floor’. Since 2011, plastic pollution has become a mainstream issue, and this is key to reform because the power is with the people. 2021 research found that 29% of global consumers, or 313 million people, were aware of Plastic Free July and 140 million took part.

The number of people revising their daily habits expands every July. What might begin as refusing one or two key single-use items, grows to refusing several, and not just for one month, but ongoing, with many participants inspiring action within schools, workplaces, and communities. 86% of participants made changes during Plastic Free July that have become a way of life, reducing their household waste and recycling by 15kg per person, per year. That’s 2.1 billion tonnes of waste and 300 million kg of plastic, the bulk of which, would have ended up in landfills and the environment.

The greater the awareness of the problem, the more people we have putting pressure on governments and big business to act. Corporations, like Fujifilm and Colgate-Palmolive, have adopted plastic reduction goals, and plastic pollution now sits alongside climate change, at the forefront of government policy agendas. And so it should – what’s the point of ensuring earth is climatically liveable if we’re dropping like flies from plastic’s carcinogenic effects?

We are now seeing bans on single-use items and waste reduction targets in many jurisdictions across the globe and, on March 2 this year, United Nations member countries voted to implement a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution. This victory is, in part, due to pressure from environmental groups, like the Plastic Free Foundation, and widespread public support. Research commissioned by the Foundation in 2021 found that 91% of the global population are for government action on plastic pollution. So, is this the beginning of the end for plastic?

Government leaders will now work together to quell the proliferation of plastic across its entire lifecycle – from the extraction of fossil fuels to plastic design, production and consumption, and the management of plastic waste – reaching a legally binding agreement by 2024.  With the societal, economic, and environmental cost of plastic production now well into the trillions, it is hoped that governments will be propelled out of inertia and commit to the drastic action that is needed from this treaty. We don’t want another Paris, with some leaders walking back on their promises.

While our heads of state don’t have the most dependable track record, what we can count on is the Plastic Free Foundation continuing to build momentum around PFJ and driving all-important micro-level change. Since the inception of Plastic Free July, we’ve seen a global reduction in demand for production of single-use plastic items, like bottled water (2.3%), plastic straws (4%), and fruit and vegetable packaging (3.1%). There is much to be done, but with PFJ expanding each year, in concert with policy efforts, plastic will incrementally lose its stronghold on mother earth. There is no alternative.

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