$2m Innovation Challenge Launched To Cut Plastic Waste

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit have launched a $2m Innovation Prize, inviting entrants to come up with new ways to avoid plastic waste and to make plastic packaging recyclable.

The news comes as Pringles tubes and Lucozade Sport bottles have been named as being among a list of products that cause the most problems for the recycling industry, according to the Recycling Association.

Covered in national media this morning (18 May), including the BBC, the products were named because of the number of materials used in the packaging, which makes them more difficult to separate.

Pringles packaging has a metal base, plastic cap, metal tear-off lid, and foil-lined cardboard sleeve, and while the Lucozade’s bottle is recyclable, it is enclosed in a sleeve made from a different kind of plastic.

Simon Ellin, CEO of the UK Recycling Association, told BBC News: “Improvements are desperately needed in product design.”

His worst recycling “offenders” also included cleaning spray bottles, black plastic food trays and whisky packaging (see below).

Redesigning Plastic Packaging

Demand for plastic products is expected to double in the next 20 years, according to the EMF. It says the plastics system is “broken”.

Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with the remainder, worth $80-120bn, lost as waste, it says.

“Most plastic packaging items are used only once before being discarded, often ending up polluting the environment. If nothing changes, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. This new prize aims to keep plastics as valuable materials in the economy, and out of the ocean.”

“We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That’s why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastics system that works.”

Dame Ellen MacArthur said: “After 40 years of effort, globally only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with one third escaping collection and ending up in the environment. If we want to change this, we must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics.

“We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That’s why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastics system that works.”

HRH The Prince of Wales will deliver the keynote speech at the launch event. At a meeting earlier this year with business leaders, designers and material experts, The Prince emphasised the urgency of the need to re-think the global plastics system and highlighted the important role of innovation and design in the transition to a circular economy in order to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean.

John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State, who has provided a video address for the launch event, commented in support of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize: “Focusing on ocean health, focusing on an initiative to save the oceans, could not be more timely, and it could not be more critical.”

Innovation Prize

To achieve the goal of eliminating plastic packaging waste, the Prize is composed of two parallel challenges:

  1. The $1m Circular Design Challengeinvites applicants to rethink how we can get products to people without generating plastic wasteThe Challenge will focus on small-format packaging items (10% of all plastic packaging) such as shampoo sachets, wrappers, straws and coffee cup lids, which are currently almost never recycled and often end up in the environment. Anyone with a good idea for how to get products to people without using disposable packaging, or for how to design plastic packaging that is easier to recycle, can enter this Challenge. Challenge partner is OpenIDEO.
  2. The $1m Circular Materials Challengeseeks ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable. About 13% of today’s packaging, such as crisp packets and food wrappers, is made of layers of different materials fused together. This multi-layer construction provides important functions like keeping food fresh, but also makes the packaging hard to recycle. The Challenge therefore invites innovators to find alternative materials that could be recycled or composted. Challenge partner is NineSigma.

Innovators who apply to the Prize are competing for up to $2,000,000 in grants and visibility of their solutions to major businesses, the innovator community and the public. Winners will enter a 12-month accelerator programme offering exclusive access to industry experts, commercial guidance, feedback on user and scalability requirements, advice on performance expectations, and access to innovation labs for testing and development. The first winners will be announced later this year.

The judging panel for the challenge consists of senior executives from major businesses, widely recognized scientists, designers and academics. Solutions will be assessed against a broad range of criteria carefully crafted in collaboration with the challenge partners and participants of the New Plastics Economy initiative.

“The value of keeping materials in the economy is massive compared to the losses we suffer when plastic leaks into the very living systems we depend upon for our survival. The New Plastics Economy Prize is a call for creative design and technical innovation at a critical time.”

Wendy Schmidt, who has already funded two major XPrize competitions focused on oceans, is funding the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize. She said: “Working towards circularity in the way we make, use, and distribute plastic packaging will revolutionise the scale of the human footprint on our planet, hugely reducing plastic waste and its devastating impact on ocean health.

“The value of keeping materials in the economy is massive compared to the losses we suffer when plastic leaks into the very living systems we depend upon for our survival. The New Plastics Economy Prize is a call for creative design and technical innovation at a critical time.”

Simon Ellin’s worst recycling offenders:

  • Pringles (and products with similar packaging): “Number One recycling villain. These things are a… nightmare. Impossible to separate the parts.”
  • Lucozade Sport (and drinks with similar packaging): “Number Two villain. This bottle is so confusing to computer scanners that it has to be picked by hand off the recycling conveyor. Then it often just gets chucked away.”
  • Cleaning spray bottles: “Labels often say the product is recyclable, but that’s only the body. The spray has two or three other polymers and a metal spring. It’s almost impossible.”
  • Black plastic food trays: “Supermarkets think black trays make meat look redder so they colour the tray black but that makes it worthless for recycling. Also, if someone leaves the torn film on the tray, with a bloody card below it, we just have to chuck it anyway.”
  • Whisky packaging: “It grieves me to say this as one who likes his whisky but whisky causes us problems. The metal bottom and top to the sleeve, the glass bottle, the metal cap… very hard for us.”

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) and The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit Prize is funded by Wendy Schmidt as Lead Philanthropic Partner of the EMF’s New Plastics Economy initiative.

The Challenge Partners are OpenIDEO (Circular Design Challenge) and NineSigma (Circular Materials Challenge). The challenge has been scoped in close coordination with the initiative’s more than 40 participants, including Core Partners Amcor, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, MARS, Novamont, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Veolia.


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  1. Statements like ‘there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050’ might attract more media attention but aren’t helpful in sorting out this problem. It infers that we’re dumping household waste at sea (which we’re not – at least not in UK waters anyway). So come on folks, a bit of sense when issuing PR like this: not something that can easily be ridiculed.
    And why no mention of the alternative solution of a series of strategically-located plastic ‘cracker’ plants that could break down plastic waste into its constituent hydrocarbons? With the right subsidies (and look how subsidies have developed the idiotic windfarm energy strategy) we’d easily sort this out.

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