Ocean pollution targeted with $2 million plastic redesign prize

Creators of innovative ways to keep plastics out of the ocean have been given a $2 million incentive by a new prize launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and The Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit.

Plastics that are not captured by recycling are often littered or leak out of the waste stream into the environment
The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize will call on entrants to come up with innovative ways to redesign plastic packaging to make it more recyclable, thus preventing it from entering the ocean in the first place.

With demand for plastics expected to double in the next 20 years and plastic waste costing the global economy $80-120 billion a year, the need for innovation is all the more pressing.

Millions of tonnes of plastic enter the marine environment every year, and just this week researchers from the University of Tasmania and the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds found a tiny uninhabited and untouched island in the South Pacific polluted by 17.6 tonnes of plastic.

The researchers found nearly 38 million pieces of plastic that had been deposited by ocean currents on the 3,700-hectare Henderson Island in the Pitcairn Islands, featuring waste produced in Europe, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere across the globe. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday (15 May), found crabs and other animals caught in the plastic debris, with about 13,000 new items washing up on the island daily.

Speaking about the Prize, Dame Ellen MacArthur, the founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explained: "After 40 years of effort, globally only 14 per cent 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.”

Ocean pollution targeted with $2 million plastic redesign prize
There is so much plastic on Henderson Island that crabs have begun using bits of packaging as shelters
Prize entrants will compete for up to $2 million in grants and the winners, who will be decided later this year by a panel of senior business executives, acclaimed scientists, designers and academics, will be entered into a 12-month accelerator programme where they will receive expert advice and commercial guidance, feedback on user and scalability requirements and access to laboratories for testing and development.

The prize will be split into two parallel challenges:

  1. The $1 million Circular Design Challenge asks participants to come up with ways of getting products to consumers without generating plastic waste, focusing on small-format packaging like straws or plastic sachets (the focus of a global Unilever project), which are almost always thrown away without being recycled. The challenge is open to anyone with an idea of how to get products to people without plastic waste or anyone who has a design for recyclable plastic packaging.
  1. The $1 million Circular Materials Challenge asks innovators to come up with ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable. It specifically targets alternatives to multi-layer composition packaging for things like crisp packets, which keep food fresh but are hard to recycle. The challenge is open to anyone with an idea for alternatives that could be composted or recycled.

The prize has been funded by Wendy Schmidt, the head of The Schmidt Family Foundation, which works to advance the development of renewable energy and the wiser use of natural resources, and is the Lead Philanthropic Partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative, a three-year initiative launched in 2016.

It has also been supported by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has provided a video address commenting that “focusing on ocean health, focusing on an initiative to save the oceans, could not be more timely, and it could not be more critical”.

“We must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics”

“We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models,” says MacAthur. “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.”

Lead Philanthropic Partner Wendy Schmidt, meanwhile, added: “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.”

Fighting ocean plastics

The New Plastics Economy initiative was set up to transform the plastics economy and create a stimulus for innovation to tackle the blight of marine plastic waste, with some 12 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year.

Several other high-profile projects have been launched in recent years, including the Ocean Cleanup, which aims to use floating barriers to collect plastic floating in the ocean around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, with deployment scheduled for the end of 2017.

There are doubts over the efficacy of cleaning up plastic once it’s already in the ocean, however, as Eunomia Research and Consulting stating that up to 94 per cent of plastics end up on the ocean floor, thus escaping the reach of clean-up projects on the ocean’s surface. The environmental consultancy suggests it would be more effective to prevent plastic entering the oceans in the first place, by clearing litter from beaches and encouraging plastic reuse.

More information about the New Plastics Economy Innovation prize can be found on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation website.

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