Ellen MacArthur Foundation launches $2m innovation prize for ocean plastic solutions

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit have today (18 May) launched a $2m innovation prize, calling on companies to create new ways of designing packaging that limits the amount of plastic polluting the oceans.

In order to eliminate plastic waste, the two foundations have issued the prize competition based on two parallel challenges. The $1m Circular Design Challenge calls on applicants to issue closed-loop solutions for small-format packaging, such as shampoo sachets, wrappers and coffee cup lids, which account for 10% of all plastic packaging. The $1m Circular Materials Challenge invites innovators to find alternative materials to plastic, which could be recycled or composted.

Speaking to edie, Dame Ellen MacArthur said: “There is now a realisation that the system doesn’t work, we’ve learnt this over the years. The system is very much broken and innovation is absolutely one of things we have to introduce to crack this. It’s essential that packaging is designed for a system that doesn’t see the value of plastic packaging lost on the economy.”

Winners of the prize will gain visibility amongst major businesses alongside a share of the $2m grant. Successful applicants will also enter a 12-month accelerator platform for commercial guidance and scalability requirements.

The prize will be funded by the New Plastic Economy Initiative which uncovered that as much as $80-120bn of plastic packaging material value is lost to the economy due to a linear, take-make-dispose value chain. The New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize was scoped in coordination of business insight from companies including Coca-Cola, Danone, Unilever and Veolia.

Business incentive

The New Plastics Economy’s lead philanthropic partner Wendy Schmidt has already funded two major XPrize competitions focused on oceans and believes that the solutions may already exist, but there’s been little incentive in the markets to promote them.

“Plastic is creating such a challenge for the living systems in the oceans that we ourselves are consuming plastic from the flesh of fish,” Schmidt told edie. “Fortunately, the world moves very quickly when we open the doors to innovation.

“There are solutions in laboratories and people’s garages. They exist and you never know where innovation will come from. But, there have not been incentives for them to come to the market place. What’s brilliant about the design of this competition is that it is so inclusive from the beginning and all the stakeholders have come into the process and have an interest in it and its results.”

Demand for plastic products is expected to double over the next 20 years, despite only 14% of plastic packaging being collected for recycling. An estimated eight million metric tonnes of plastic enter the oceans each year. If current pollution trends continue, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050.

Brands are increasingly highlighting a willingness to tackled plastic waste. Earlier this year Unilever made a bold new pledge to ensure that 100% of its plastic packaging is fully re-usable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Meanwhile, retailer M&S has completely phased out hard-to-recycle PVC and polystyrene from its products and packaging. The pledge forms part of the company’s overarching sustainability plan, Plan A, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

More recently, beer brand Corona announced a partnership with Parley for the Oceans, vowing to protect 100 islands against rising marine plastic pollution by 2020. Parley for the Oceans had previously worked with Adidas to mass-produce trainers made from 95% ocean plastic.

Writing on the wall

The Prince of Wales has previously claimed that “profound changes” to the global economic system are needed in order to avert environmental catastrophe. The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit’s involvement in this prize aims to promote the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper now holds a number of roles including special advisor for the Sustainability Unit. He claimed that any businesses failing to realign operational models to account for closed-loop projects would likely suffer “downsides on many levels”.

Speaking ahead of his appearance at edie Live next week, Juniper said: “The writing’s on the wall. Consumer and business relationships and regulatory thinking paints a picture of a near-term future where if you’re not at least part of the advocacy and you finish up being a laggard,  there’s going to be business consequences.

“You’ll lose market shares; your brand will be less trusted. Overall the business case is very clear. It is a visible economic opportunity, it’s not just an environmental opportunity any more. It’s about the competitiveness of business and continuing a linear economy will create business downsides on many levels.”

Matt Mace

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