Recent years have seen an unprecedented recognition of the rising tide of ocean plastic pollution. But it has become clear that despite significant levels of dedication, innovation and investment, clean-ups cannot keep pace. While essential for tackling the symptoms of the plastic pollution crisis, they do not address the root causes.

More than 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, yet the three biggest clean-ups deal with just 0.5% of that pollution. This crisis urgently demands innovators, industry and governments to develop systemic solutions that prevent plastic from becoming waste in the first place. That is why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched its $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize last May, funded by Wendy Schmidt, Lead Philanthropic Partner of the Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative.

We challenged scientists, designers and other innovators to radically rethink how we make, use and reuse plastics. The challenge was split into two categories, with each winner receiving a share of the $2 million prize to invest in scaling and developing their ideas.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Circular Design Challenge focused on the vast amount of small items such as shampoo sachets, wrappers, straws and coffee cup lids that are currently not recycled and often end up in the environment.

The Circular Materials Challenge targeted the lightweight, flexible packaging used for some of our favourite, but most technically demanding, products. Around 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 difficult to recycle. Combined with the necessary infrastructure, the Circular Materials Challenge winners innovations could prevent the equivalent of 100 garbage bags per second of plastic waste being created.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Meet the Circular Design Challenge Winners

Rethinking grocery shopping

MIWA, from the Czech Republic, introduces an app that lets shoppers order the exact quantities of the groceries they need, which are then delivered in reusable packaging from the producer to their closest store or to their home.

Algramo, a Chilean social enterprise, offers products in small quantities in reusable containers across a network of 1,200 local convenience stores in Chile.

Redesigning sachets

Hundreds of billions of sachets are sold each year to get small quantities of personal care and food products, such as shampoo and soy sauce, to people mostly in emerging markets. Those sachets are not recycled and many end up polluting the ocean.

Evoware, an Indonesian start-up, designs food wrappings and sachets (containing, for example, instant coffee or flavouring for noodles) made out of a seaweed-based material that can be dissolved and eaten.

Delta, from the United Kingdom, offers a compact technology that allows restaurants to make and serve sauces in edible and compostable sachets.

Reinventing coffee-to-go

More than 100 billion disposable coffee cups are sold globally every year, yet today almost none of them (nor their lids) are recycled.

CupClub, based in the United Kingdom, introduces a reusable cup subscription service, in which reusable cups can be dropped off at any participating store.

TrioCup from the US offers a disposable paper cup made with an origami-like technique that removes the need for a plastic lid. The team has chosen a 100% compostable material and is working on an alternative that is 100% recyclable.

Meet the Circular Materials Challenge Winners

Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable

The University of Pittsburgh team applies nano-engineering to create a recyclable material that can replace complex multi-layered packaging that is unrecyclable. This mimics the way nature uses just a few molecular building blocks to create a huge variety of materials.

Aronax Technologies Spain proposes a magnetic additive that can be applied to a material, creating better air and moisture insulation – making it suitable to protect sensitive products such as coffee and medicines, while still being possible to recycle.

Working together, Full Cycle Bioplastics, Elk Packaging, and Associated Labels and Packaging make a compostable high-performance material from renewable materials, agricultural by-products and food waste to pack a broad range of products from granola bars and crisps to laundry detergent.

Combining materials that nature can handle

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has created a compostable multi-layer material from agricultural and forestry by-products, which could be used for stand-up food pouches for products like muesli, nuts, dried fruit and rice.

Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research has developed a coating with silicate and biopolymers that can be used in many different food packaging applications and is fully compostable.

Image: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

Each winner will now work with experts to make their concepts marketable at scale, as part of a 12-month accelerator programme, run in collaboration with innovation catalysers Think Beyond Plastic.

These innovations demonstrate the possibilities when the principles of a circular economy are embraced, but achieving them will require new levels of commitment and collaboration from industry, governments, designers and start-ups. It will rely on investment to scale up new alternatives and provide the necessary collection and sorting infrastructure to support it. That is why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation welcomes the latest steps from leading businesses and governments towards creating a circular economy for plastics.

We have seen the list of major brands, retailers and packaging companies working towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or earlier has grown to 11 – Amcor, Ecover, evian, L’Oréal, Mars, M&S, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, Unilever, Walmart and Werner & Mertz – together representing around 6 million tonnes of plastic packaging per year.

In December, the French government reaffirmed its commitment towards systemic solutions, pledging to recycle 100% of plastics by 2025. In March they will unveil a circular economy roadmap of the practical steps needed to realize those ambitions. The benefits include new jobs and increased competitiveness and innovation according to Brune Poirson, Secretary of State to the Minister for the Ecological and Inclusive Transition.

In the UK, WRAP and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation have announced a partnership to establish the first national implementation initiative of the New Plastics Economy in the UK, a unique government-backed collaboration bringing together businesses, governments and other stakeholders to make step changes in creating and implementing circular economy solutions to plastic waste.

Others around the world must follow their lead.