Bubble barriers and ‘naked’ shampoo: Six of the best innovations for tackling plastics pollution

Following the launch of our Mission Possible Plastics Hub this week, edie has rounded up some of the ground-breaking innovations which could help businesses and nations ramp up their efforts to tackle the perils of plastic pollution, once and for all.

Bubble barriers and ‘naked’ shampoo: Six of the best innovations for tackling plastics pollution

This week's innovations demonstrate how plastic can be eliminated at source

The scale of the plastics problem has never been clearer; more than 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year, with more than eight million tonnes finding its way into oceans annually, according to data from charity Plastic Oceans, with 80% of this waste starting out as litter on land.

In the wake of high-profile media exposés like Blue Planet 2 and damning scientific news, such as the Ellen MacArthur foundation’s prediction that there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050, plastic has faced unprecedented scrutiny from the public, policymakers and the business community over the past two years.

As companies remove certain plastic products – or set longer-term and more wide-reaching plastics reduction targets – the fact is that they will need to replace some with more sustainable alternatives, which is where innovations come in.

Of course, any solutions to this epidemic need to be balanced. For plastic serves an important purpose; it protects our products from damage and contamination, it gives food longer shelf life and helps maintain sanitary conditions in the healthcare sector.

But alternatives to genuinely misused plastic ARE out there – this is not an unsolvable issue. The onus is now on businesses to continue to innovate and to work collaboratively to solve the plastics problem.

With this in mind – and to coincide with the launch of our Mission Possible Plastics Hub campaign – edie rounds up six of the most promising innovations which could help solve the plastics pollution puzzle.

Edible seaweed sachets

With more than 480 billion single-use plastic drinking bottles and 11 billion plastic sachets sold globally each year, the food and drink industry is arguably at the epicentre of the global plastics problem. But businesses in this sector must weigh up numerous potential knock-on effects before phasing out plastic, such as their food waste output and the cost of their packaging.

One innovation in this space which has already achieved buy-in from several big-name businesses is the Ooho – an edible and compostable drinks sachet made from seaweed. Developed by packaging development company Skipping Rocks Lab and backed by funding from the Sky Ocean Ventures initiative, the product takes around six weeks to decompose in landfill.

Several businesses – including Lucozade, Selfridges and Just Eat – trialled Oohos for the first time in 2018. Selfridges has since made them a permanent fixture in the foodhall at their flagship London store, which banned plastic bottles in 2010.  

Edible food and drinks packaging was recently named as one of edie’s nine key innovation areas that could be set to ignite in 2019.

Naked’ beauty products

The impact which the global cosmetics and toiletries sector could have by reducing its reliance on plastic is not to be underestimated, with the sector estimated to be producing 120 billion units of plastic packaging every year.

But as consumer demand for sustainable packaging begins to outstrip corporate action, brands in this space which sell solid versions of liquid products are becoming increasingly popular, while those selling non-concentrated formulas are losing out. Indeed, recent market research by market analysts Kantar WorldPanel found that sales of soap bars in the UK rose by 3% between 2017 and 2018, out-performing liquid soaps as well as shower gels.

If brands move to cash-in on this trend, one innovation which could soon become mainstream is “naked” beauty products – toiletries in bar form, sold without plastic packaging. Health and beauty brand Lush is leading this transition, having already replaced half of its products with such innovative alternatives, including solid shampoos and lipstick refills housed in beeswax. Customers are encouraged to store these products in reusable aluminium tins or recyclable plastic bags.

The health and beauty brand has experienced such success with these products that it has opened three plastic-free stores over the past 12 months. They are located in Milan, Berlin and Manchester.

Food waste bioplastics

As the corporate shift away from oil-based plastic continues to permeate the fashion and packaging sectors, a string of corporates including Reebok and Lego have moved to incorporate bioplastics into their products in a shift away from fossil fuel-based materials.

But with critics citing the ethical and environmental pitfalls of using farmland to grow plants for plastics rather than produce, researchers at Sweden’s Lund University have developed an alternative material made from potato peelings and water.

Led by student Pontus Törnqvist, Potato Plastic makes compostable cutlery, straws and salt bags by heating a thick mixture of hot water and warm potato starch, pouring the fluid into a mould and refrigerating it until it sets. The result is a thermoplastic that can biodegrade in nature within two months.

The starch to make the material is extracted from fast-food outlets’ potato peelings, and potatoes which have been deemed aesthetically unfit for sale in supermarkets, with McCain and Ikea already confirmed as suppliers. After being shortlisted for the prestigious James Dyson Award last year, Törnqvist hopes to receive funding to scale up production.

Closed-loop clothing

The global fashion industry probably isn’t the first you’d think of in a discussion around plastics pollution, but of the 100 billion garments it produces every year, the majority are made with plastic-based fabric blends.

In a bid to reduce the sector’s reliance on virgin plastic, more and more companies are moving to design garments incorporating a high proportion of recycled content. Parley’s ocean plastic football kits and Thread’s backpacks made with 100% landfill-bound bottles have both proven extremely popular in recent months, for example.

But it’s not just small companies which are investing in this kind of closed-loop innovation. Since launching ocean plastic trainers in 2017, sportswear giant Adidas has pledged to remove virgin plastic from its products by 2024, while H&M has begun selling recycled polyester sportswear as it strives to become “truly circular” by 2030.

This corporate trend has taken hold in the US, too. Following in the footsteps of outdoor clothing brand The North Face, which last year unveiled a range of products made from littered PET bottles, womenswear chain Everlane recently launched a range of outerwear made with post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic. The garments each contain the equivalent of at least 15 recycled drinks bottles – with the full-length puffa jackets containing the equivalent of 60.

Black plastic detectors

Black plastic is a particular challenge in the war on plastic waste, as it is generally not able to be recognised by scanners within traditional recycling technologies, meaning it is often sent to landfill or incineration. Moreover, businesses tend to avoid buying recycled black plastic as it cannot be re-dyed and used in products of a different colour.

While the likes of Quorn Foods and Aldi are approaching the issue by removing black plastics from their product ranges, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer (M&S) have gone one step further and helped to create a sector-wide solution. The supermarket chains recently collaborated with recycling and packaging production firm Viridor to develop a recycling technology capable of ‘scanning’ black plastics at scale.

Once plastics are scanned within the machinery, which has been installed at one Viridor facility to date, they are separated for shredding, melting and re-use in new packaging; a feat which had not previously been achieved at the UK’s waste processing facilities. Viridor estimates that this process has diverted 120 tonnes of plastic from landfill each month since the technology came online last July.

Plastic-blocking bubble barriers

The innovations listed in this round-up so far have focused either on avoiding plastic use altogether or repurposing plastic waste streams which have already been captured for recycling. But with plastic already in waterways and oceans, killing more than 100,000 mammals every year, clean-up is an equally important part of the solution to the plastic pollution crisis.

Following the failure of The Ocean Cleanup’s first solar-powered device, which was designed to collect debris of all sizes from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a standout innovation in this field comes from Dutch startup The Great Bubble Barrier. The firm has created a marine air pump that traps debris before it leaves rivers and canals. The pump is set up on the river or canal bed, where it is fed with highly pressurised air. The air then rises from a series of vents along the tubing, creating a barrier of bubbles that is strong enough to trap plastics but weak enough to allow fish and ships to pass through.

Once the plastics are trapped, they are directed to the edge of the water so they can be removed for recycling. The Great Bubble Barrier carried out its first full-scale trial of the technology along a 200-metre-long stretch of the River IJssel in 2017. Last year, it received €500,000 in funding from The Green Challenge to scale up its operations.

edie’s Mission Possible Plastics Hub

edie has this week launched the Mission Possible Plastics Hub – a brand-new content-driven campaign that will support sustainability and resource efficiency professionals on our collective mission to eliminate single-use plastics.

In addition to hosting content that supports businesses with their single-use plastics phase-outs, the Mission Possible Plastics Hub will be encouraging sustainability professionals to submit new commitments to tackle plastic pollution on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.

If your company has an existing plastics commitment, or if you’re planning a new commitment over the coming months, you can showcase it on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall.


(By submitting a pledge, edie readers are agreeing to the commitment, target date and expected benefits being published on the Mission Possible Pledge Wall, along with their name and job title. They are also agreeing to being contacted by a member of the edie editorial team, should any further information about their pledge be required.)

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie