Today, at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF), with the support of Wendy Schmidt, lead philanthropic partner of the foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative, awarded a total of $1 million to five new recyclable and compostable packaging solutions that are helping stop plastics from becoming waste.
While ocean clean-ups are an important part of addressing the symptoms of the plastics problem, they don’t address the root cause, nor are they able to keep pace with the rising tide of plastic pollution. More than 8 million tons of plastics enter the world’s oceans each year, yet the three biggest clean-ups are only capable of dealing with a mere .5 percent of that volume.
The development of innovative, systemic solutions and strong government policies can, however, help prevent plastic from becoming waste in the first place. Following this line of thinking, EMF, Wendy Schmidt and challenge partner NineSigma launched the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize. Combined with the necessary infrastructure, the Circular Material Challenge innovations could prevent the equivalent of 100 garbage bags per second of plastic waste being created.
The solutions target the lightweight, flexible packaging used for products such as sauces, fresh coffee and snacks, which is generally too hard or expensive to recycle because of the layered nature of its design and use of different materials. Five winners were announced across two categories. Each team will receive a $200,000 share of the $1 million prize.
The University of Pittsburgh and Aronax Technologies Spain championed Category 1: Make Unrecyclable Packaging Recyclable. The University of Pittsburgh team used nano-engineering to create a recyclable material that can replace complex, unrecyclable, multi-layered packaging by mimicking the way nature uses just a few molecular building blocks to create a large variety of materials. Aronax proposed 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 medical equipment, while ensuring recyclability.
Under Category 2: Combining Materials That Nature Can Handle, the VTT — Technical Research Centre of Finland — was recognized for creating a compostable multi-layer material from agricultural and forestry by-products, while the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC developed a fully compostable silicate and biopolymer coating that can be used in a range of food packaging applications. A collaboration between Full Cycle Bioplastics, Elk Packaging and Associated Labels and Packaging was also named a category winner for creating a compostable, high-performance material from agricultural by-products and food waste to pack products varying from granola bars and crisps to laundry detergent.
“In a New Plastics Economy, plastics will never become waste or enter the ocean in the first place,” said Dame Ellen MacArthur. “To get there will require new levels of commitment and collaboration from industry, governments, designers and startups. I hope these innovations will inspire even more progress, helping to build a system in which all plastic materials are reused, recycled or safely composted.”
Together with the winners of the $1 million Circular Design Challenge announced in October 2017, these innovators will join a 12-month accelerator program, in collaboration with Think Beyond Plastic, in which they will work with experts to make their solutions marketable at scale.
“The technical innovations developed by our winners are exactly what is needed to begin to address the wasteful material culture of the past century that is creating increasing amounts of microplastics and plastic debris on our shorelines, in our oceans, landfills and even our bodies,” Schmidt said. “I am excited to see the winners of this prize money begin the important work in this year’s accelerator program, with the goal of moving these exciting breakthroughs into the marketplace.”
While the accelerator program and funding will play a key role in helping the selected innovators demonstrate the viability of their materials as alternatives to non-recyclable packaging, for these innovations to have the greatest impact, governments must work together with businesses to create a circular system. Committing to scale up such innovations as those presented in the Circular Material Challenge and providing the necessary collection and sorting infrastructure will be essential in delivering these ends.