Zero Waste Experts Share Thoughts on Plastic Free July

In light of bigger climate catastrophes, does this month-long campaign matter?

zero waste grocery store
Shoppers at a zero waste grocery store.

Getty Images/Luis Alvarez

This month is Plastic Free July, when hundreds of millions of people worldwide strive to reduce the amount of single-use plastic they use. The hope is that, once the month-long challenge is over, the habits will stick and individuals will feel motivated to continue their plastic reduction journey.

Some critics suggest that initiatives like Plastic Free July are pointless, that it's a mere drop in the bucket, or even a distraction that makes no real difference in the face of bigger and more catastrophic climate concerns like heat domes, melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, wildfires, and soil degradation. 

Is that an accurate portrayal, or does Plastic Free July serve an important purpose? Treehugger decided to ask a number of zero waste experts for their opinions. These are people who think about plastic waste full-time and have done so for years. Treehugger gave them each a set of questions and received responses from everyone that range in length and detail. (Note: Some responses have been edited for brevity.)

Question: Do you celebrate Plastic Free July and encourage others to do so, too?

Anne-Marie Bonneau, a.k.a. the Zero Waste Chef, responded:

"Every month is July for me and, yes, I do encourage others to take the challenge. I think one of the reasons Plastic Free July has been such a popular success is its relatively brief duration. If I were to ask my social media audience (or friends and family), 'Hey, would you like to stop using single-use plastic for an entire year?' few would want to try. But a month seems possible. For many who do take the challenge, Plastic Free July serves as a gateway to sustainability."

Lindsay Miles, speaker, educator, and author of "The Less Waste No Fuss Kitchen," said:

"I took part in my first Plastic Free July in 2012 and it's fair to say that it had a big role in shifting my habits. I don't really 'celebrate' it myself anymore, but I love that it exists, and I'd encourage anyone wanting to re-evaluate their plastic use to give it a go."

Lindsey McCoy, CEO of Plaine Products, a zero waste personal care products company, explained:

"We celebrate Plastic Free July as individuals and as a company... Plastic has become such an integral part of our lives that you really have to call special attention to it to realize how much we use and then throw away. There are alternatives to single-use plastic out there, but it takes awareness to break the habit and make a different choice. This is a great month to make changes."

Kathryn Kellogg of Going Zero Waste offered the following comment:

"I think this Plastic Free July is a really great reset after 2020. However, since many of us still have limited options when it comes to buying from bulk bins or even bringing our own cups to the coffee shop, I hope this Plastic Free July allows us to look at an even bigger picture."

The team at Zero Waste Canada stated:

"Plastic Free July is a great shift into becoming more consciously aware of what you consume within your daily lives including work, home, and public outings. This initiative allows you to learn while creating some competitive drive to improve your actions, but most importantly allows you to create small positive habits that add up."

plastic free July badge

Plastic Free July

Question: If you do participate in Plastic Free July, why do you think it's important?

Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero Waste Chef, provided a thought-provoking response:

"Plastic pollutes the environment well before it winds up in a landfill, incinerator, or the ocean. It harms the environment all along its lifecycle, from extracting the fossil fuels that plastic is made from; to refining those fossil fuels, often in BIPOC communities with a history of racist redlining policies; to shipping Western waste to developing countries that lack the infrastructure to manage it; to the greenhouse gases that plastic releases as it degrades. 

"Because it pollutes our air, water, and food, it also pollutes us, not just with the microplastics we ingest but with the industrial chemicals (bisphenols, phthalates, PFAS) found in the plastic that packages most of the food-like substances that make up the Western diet (which plastic enables). According to the American Society of Pediatrics, these chemicals may harm our children's health. I can't support this.

"Meanwhile, as big oil companies like ExxonMobil plan to make a mind-bogglingly bad situation even worse. Realizing that demand for fossil fuels as fuel will continue to dwindle as we decarbonize society, Big Oil plans to create more plastic with their literally and figuratively (from an investor standpoint) toxic product. As Greenpeace recently revealed, ExxonMobil plans to sow the same seeds of doubt and disinformation regarding plastic pollution as it did with climate change."

Lindsay Miles added that Plastic-Free July is

"a good on-ramp for exploring our habits and understanding how everything is interconnected... Before I took part in my first Plastic Free July challenge I thought that recycling was the solution to the waste problem. I'd never really considered refusing or reducing as options that were accessible to me! And I'd never have realized that for refusing and reducing to be accessible to everyone we are going to need system change, with governments and corporations involved." 

Kathryn Kellogg pointed out that participation in Plastic Free July raises important questions:

"Where is plastic made? Who’s bearing the brunt of that pollution? What can we do to reduce plastic at a larger scale rather than just individual? I hope a lot of people will look at the Break Free From Plastic Act that’s currently on Capitol Hill. Wouldn’t that be amazing to see that pass this month?"

No More Plastic bag

Getty Images/Anna Blazhuk

Question: What do you tell people who suggest it doesn't make a difference?

Lindsay Miles said:

"With a problem as big as plastic pollution, there's never going to be one solution. I think the role of Plastic Free July is to get people thinking, asking questions, and making changes in their lives, which helps normalize different ways of doing things and sparks conversation and innovation, which is then adopted by businesses, governments, and corporations."

Anne-Marie Bonneau responded:

"I may not be able to personally stop ExxonMobil but by refusing plastic along with hundreds of millions of others around the world during Plastic Free July, I contribute to an anti-plastic zeitgeist that continues to grow and demand change. 

"Governments are implementing regulations I couldn't have imagined five years ago, much less ten when I went plastic-free. Chile and New Zealand have banned single-use plastic. Canada has declared plastic toxic. A global treaty to address plastic pollution has support from several countries. 

"Without grassroots efforts like Plastic Free July, I don't think we would see these types of regulations (but we still need much more). Regulation will bring about change faster than individual change... but it won't happen without concerned citizens first taking action."

The Zero Waste Canada team said:

"This challenge allows us to be open-minded in ways that we may never have been before, and it allows us to make conscious decisions based on these new learnings. Plastic Free July supports innovation and collaboration at all levels through buyer behavior, business strategy, and community programs. And for those who are still skeptical, there is always this famous quote to think of, 'What if it's a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?'"

Lindsey McCoy of Plaine Products added:

"Companies and governments respond to consumer pressure, so the more people are making alternative choices, asking for plastic free or reusable packaging options, the more companies and governments will move in that direction. This month provides opportunities for individuals and local organizations to connect over a shared purpose and help create actions going forward."