Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to James Longcroft whose ethical water company is turning the tide on single-use plastic bottles. 

James Longcroft left Durham University with “basically a third” in chemistry, and a child. He secured, and promptly came to hate, a job in the oil and gas industry. His struggle to gel with a 9-5 lifestyle forced him to think like an entrepreneur without quite knowing what that meant.

He was also motivated by this thought: “Why don’t we try putting some good out into the world?” On a visit to Gambia, he saw first-hand the poor health conditions and socio-economic devastation the lack of clean drinking water caused. Returning home, Longcroft decided to go back to basics. The now father-of-two teamed up with a friend to launch Choose Water: a start-up shifting a product as simple as bottled water, but with a twist (not just the screwcap).

From the outset, the company committed to donating 100 per cent of profits to charity partner Water For Africa.

Instead of targeting supermarkets, Choose Water seeped into music festivals and other big events where they could sell thousands a day. But it was during a run of these music festivals that James, now 27, noticed a recurring attitude that caught him off guard.

Choose Water had always held themselves to a strict recycling standard, but the tide was turning on plastic as its destructive environmental impact hit headlines. Clients and customers alike were turning down Choose Water’s product in favour of sustainable designs, and Longcroft was shaken out of his self-confessed “blissful ignorance”.

He knew the bottle part of his bottled water company was a problem, so decided to come up with a biodegradable substitute. The company, now a team of three, didn’t finish the run of music festivals because they didn’t want to order any more plastic bottles.

I wanted our new bottle responsibility-free

Plastic wasn’t all over the news the way it is now, but we couldn’t continue to be a part of that,” he says. “We ended up losing a lot of revenue. I knew I had to come up an alternative to the plastic bottles we’d been selling. Something sustainable, good for the environment, something we could sleep easy knowing we’d brought into existence on the planet.”

Longcroft’s income was cut immediately, the business surviving only on a small number of glass sales that covered overheads. The Choose Water founder spent evenings and weekends building websites for clients; the rest of the time was spent in his Edinburgh kitchen, converting the space into a makeshift lab.

“I ordered in a lot of natural resources. Mother Nature has spent billions and billions of years to develop waterproof things, why not borrow some of this instead of trying to make my own?”

The entrepreneur spent time researching bioplastic, cans and tins, but no ready-made alternative met the ambitious criteria Longcroft had set
himself. “I wanted our new bottle responsibility-free. But you have to be responsible with our bottles. You can’t just throw them out the window. Although they would biodegrade.”

My 3 tips for success

  1. Don’t try to do it by yourself. You’ve got to surround yourself with as many people as you can from different backgrounds.
  2. Say yes to every meeting, every phone call – you never know what could come of it.
  3. Celebrate the tiny victories rather than beating yourself up.

Longcroft continued his trial and error for a year-and-a-half, manipulating plant-based materials and naturally occurring waxes. It was, in his words, “a right faff”. He recalls: “We had two small fires, an explosion and I have bled more than I thought humanly possible. But we did it, so it was all worth it.”

The final prototype was as simple as Longcroft had hoped. He had settled on paper casing for the outside of the container, made in a similar way to egg cartons. The bottle is completely biodegradable, made from ethical and sustainable materials.

It was the waterproof liner of the bottle that proved the biggest challenge, but eventually Longcroft landed on the perfect ‘recipe’ – one that will remain a mystery for the time being until they launch in the new year.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

In May, the team cautiously went live on a digital crowdfunder for the plastic-less bottle. The public response was huge and the project duly funded – and then some – by enthusiastic contributors. Some £40,270 was raised, 144 per cent of their goal, making it possible for Choose Water to set
manufacturing into motion.

Still, the company is committed to handing their profits over to Water For Africa. Longcroft sincerely hopes that figure will stay at 100 per cent, but he concedes that if the company continues to expand, outside investors may become a necessity, and a few per cent could ultimately be knocked off that. He’s happy that they would be handing over “a smaller slice of a bigger pie” though.

Next on the Choose Water agenda is the launch, for which they have already been inundated with potential clients. This is a real plus, he says, because they can prioritise those who are really driven to reduce plastic and “aren’t just jumping on the PR opportunity”. Half a million bottles will be produced in the first six months, with an intention to grow to around 20 million. “Then just keep going. And growing and growing and growing.”

Illustration: Lyndon Hayes