Uni Student Starts Sustainable Business From his Flat

Starting a business can be hard, especially when you’re in your first year of an Economics degree.

With the determination to rid the world of plastic, that’s exactly what British student Tom Benford did in 2018. With a growing business and a prestigious Chamber of Commerce award under his belt, at just 21 years old Tom is on track to make waves in the global sustainable business market.

Tom had always had an affinity for entrepreneurship and jokes that when he was 11, he bought cheap supermarket branded custard creams to sell on to his fellow classmates, undercutting the school canteen. Fast-forward 8 years to the morning after a uni house party where Tom awoke to what can only be described as a plastic hangover in his kitchen, and where he witnessed a friend rinsing out a plastic straw to reuse it. That’s when inspiration hit.

Knowing that there must have been a more sustainable option than reusing a plastic straw, Tom started researching suppliers of reusable metal straws, which could be washed and reused again and again.

With a first shipment of stainless-steel straws and cleaning brushes coming in, aptly named Plastic Phobia was ready to launch its online shop. The first sale was made on the very first day to a family friend, which came to £2.54. It wasn’t long before Tom started getting requests to take wholesale orders, as at this time zero waste products were hard to come by. Plastic Phobia now supplies over 250 stores in the UK, Europe, and Beyond. When Tom’s spare room was filled to the brim with boxes of products, it became clear that Plastic Phobia had to move into a more size appropriate location and is now based at Alison Business Centre in Sheffield.



After taking a year out from his studies to focus on the business, Tom formally withdrew from university in 2019 because Plastic Phobia had grown to a level that far exceeded expectations and it was not possible to study and work on the business at the same time. Although the company has enjoyed great success, it hasn’t always been easy. Tom recalls that the hardest challenge he’s had to face was getting traction initially, “Putting the business together piece by piece was difficult. Then growing your start up is difficult. It’s not easy!” Over the last few months Plastic Phobia has expanded to hire Marketing Coordinator Shelby Storey and Sales Coordinator Abi Baker (who spent a large part of her Childhood living in Melbourne), and the team is excited to see the company continue to grow. In October 2019 Tom won the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce President’s Young Entrepreneur 2019 Award, which is an achievement the whole Plastic Phobia team is immensely proud of. He was invited to the dinner in person by the president himself and was surprised with the award on the night.

Plastic Phobia is a forward-thinking company; each day brings a new idea and a stronger strategy. The company recently opened an online B2B ordering platform, which has seen a huge uplift in customer orders and proves that there really is a strong demand for sustainable products. It’s clear that accessibility is key when running any business, but especially when running a sustainable business, as people might often go with convenience over conscience. It’s Plastic Phobia’s mission to provide friendly and efficient customer service, and to ensure that zero waste products are accessible to all.

It’s no secret that Plastic Pollution is a serious problem, It’s estimated that each year the average Australian throws away 130kg of plastic, and the UK collectively bins 295bn pieces of plastic. Reducing waste had always been important to Tom and starting a sustainable business, though not always easy, was an easy decision to make. The company now has an extensive range of zero waste products including Bamboo Toothbrushes, Denttabs Toothpaste Tablets, and Coconut Bowls. While there are efforts being made to remove plastic waste from the oceans, it’s more important than ever that we stop adding to the problem or else we risk being guilty of grabbing the mop before turning off the tap, as the adage would have it.

Thankfully, consumer habits are quickly moving towards sustainability, as customers actively seek out eco-friendly products for themselves and to give as gifts. In the UK there seem to be endless zero waste shops opening on high streets, in markets, and online. This trend is one making ripples globally, with Germany appearing to have the strongest established market for zero waste products.

Australian consumers are ever more conscious of their buying habits, and as the home to the Great Barrier Reef and distinguished coastlines it’s no surprise that people want to make Australia greener.

From the UK, to Germany, to Australia and the rest of the world, one thing that stands out is the community attitude of sustainable businesses. Time and time again we hear about our customers making friends with other local sustainable businesses and opting to combine shipments to minimise the environmental impact from deliveries. At Plastic Phobia we have an open communication with all our customers to find out what is and isn’t working and act accordingly. It is our aim to start a Zero Waste Support group and offer advice to those just starting out who might need help with starting a sustainable business.

Evolving from an idea the morning after a student party into a successful sustainable business trading globally, Plastic Phobia is proof that taking a business idea from dream into reality is a very real possibility. Talking to those who are already running sustainable businesses and sharing ideas for environmental progression means that hopefully together we can work towards a more liveable future.

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