Recyclable plastic alternatives share $1m circular economy prize

Five recyclable and compostable alternatives to plastic packaging will share $1 million of funding after being announced as the winners of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s (EMF) Circular Materials Challenge in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday (23 January) at a presentation held at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

The Circular Materials Challenge forms part of the EMF’s $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, along with the Circular Design Challenge, the winners of which were announced in October 2017. Both Challenges share $1 million between five winners, with each winner receiving $200,000 each.

The Circular Materials Challenge, which is operated by challenge partner NineSigma, is built on the principles of the EMF’s New Plastics Economy initiative and aims to tackle the scourge of plastics waste through inspiring and developing systemic solutions that prevent plastics from becoming waste in the first place, encouraging recyclability at the design stage of the supply chain, rather than at the end of a product’s life.

Recyclable packaging innovations win $1 million circular economy prize
Alarming images of marine plastic pollution have spurred action on plastics in recent months.

Marine plastics pollution is fast becoming the abiding symbol of today’s environmental struggle - as the whale and the ozone layer have been before - with between 8-12 million tonnes of plastic waste entering the world’s oceans every year, and the issue being brought to a wider audience than ever before, thanks in large part to veteran broadcaster David Attenborough’s BBC series Blue Planet II.

The desire to see a closed-loop plastics economy underpins the purpose of the challenges, targeting the lightweight, flexible packaging used for products including sauces, fresh coffee and snacks, which is too hard or expensive to recycle because it is made of several layers of different materials.

The winners

The five winners of the Challenge were split into two categories: ‘Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable’ and ‘Combining materials that nature can handle’.

Category 1: Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable

  • The University of Pittsburgh (USA) team applied 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 (Spain) 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 products, while still being possible to recycle.

Category 2: Combining materials that nature can handle

  • Working in collaboration, Full Cycle Bioplastics (USA), Elk Packaging (USA), and Associated Labels and Packaging (Canada) have made a compostable high-performance material from renewable materials, agricultural by-products and food waste, designed to package a broad range of products from granola bars and crisps to laundry detergent.
  • The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland (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.
  • Finally, the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research ISC (Germany) has developed a coating with silicate and biopolymers that can be used in many different food packaging applications protecting biopolymer packaging and food against premature degradation and is fully compostable.

Along with the winners of the Circular Design Challenge, these groups will now join a 12-month accelerator programme in collaboration with Think Beyond Plastic, working with experts to make their innovations marketable at scale.

‘Exciting breakthroughs’

Commenting after the announcement of the winners, Dame Ellen MacArthur said: "These winning innovations show what’s possible when the principles of a circular economy are embraced. Clean-ups continue to play an important role in dealing with the consequences of the waste plastic crisis, but we know we must do more. We urgently need solutions that address the root causes of the problem, not just the symptoms.

"In a New Plastics Economy, plastics will never become waste or enter the ocean in the first place. 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."

Lead Philanthropic Partner of the EMF’s New Plastics Economy initiative and Circular Materials Challenge funder Wendy Schmidt added: “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 own bodies.

Interest in alternatives to plastic and the need to design packaging to be recyclable is gaining momentum at the highest levels, with two eagerly awaited strategy documents released since the turn of the year, both of which place plastics at the forefront of environmental policy.

On 11 January, the UK Government released its 25 Year Environment Plan in which it committed the UK to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042 and promised to extend the five pence levy on plastic carrier bags to all retailers in England. The Plan was cautiously welcomed by observers in the waste and resources industry, although its lack of detail drew criticism, with Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh MP commenting that it “delays answering the hard questions over how to tackle plastic pollution”.

On the same day as the release of the 25 Year Plan, the EMF and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) announced a new joint initiative, still in development, based on the EMF’s New Plastics Economy. This partnership wants to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics, ensure all plastic packaging is recyclable, increase the collection and recycling of plastic packaging, increase the recycled content in plastic packaging and encourage citizens to play their part in reducing waste and litter.

The EU released its own Europe-wide plastics strategy last week (16 January), which placed an emphasis on creating secondary markets for recycled plastics in its bid to create a truly circular economy in Europe.

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