These Bold Ideas Aim To Make Plastic Waste A Thing Of The Past

The winners of a recent contest hosted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation all start with one fundamental concept: We can–and must–replace non-recyclable materials on the market with biodegradable alternatives.

When the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched its New Plastics Economy initiative two years ago, it made a dark, headline-grabbing prediction. It said if nothing is done to arrest the rate at which plastic is entering the oceans, those oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050.

About 8 million tons of plastic become maritime garbage every year, according to scientifically grounded estimates. Only about 14% of the plastic used for wrapping food and bottling water is currently recycled and reused, and the numbers are going up all the time. As countries like China and Vietnam take on western-type lifestyles, they produce more plastic waste–but often without the infrastructure to capture and reconstitute it.

But the good people at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a U.K. nonprofit named after a record-breaking British sailor, is more optimistic than it was back in 2016. It’s persuaded 11 leading consumer brands and packaging companies–including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Walmart–to move towards 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025. The U.K. and French governments have committed to circular economies around plastic waste (the French have also banned plastic plates and cutlery).

And this year, the Foundation has helped spur a fair amount of plastics innovation activity through a contest funded by Wendy Schmidt, wife of former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.

From an innovation standpoint, the hardest nut to crack is the 30% of plastics that can’t currently be reused: the sachets, tear-offs, lids, and bags made up of complex or multilayer materials (like chip bags that contain both plastic and metal). That is what the contest aimed to tackle.

“While plastics bring convenience and many benefits, it’s also an example of our current broken take-make-dispose economic model,” says Rob Opsomer, who leads the foundation’s New Plastics Economy work and the contest this year. “At the moment, there is no viable [second] market for these materials. They need fundamental innovation. Today, when you bring it to a recycling facility, there is nothing they can do with it,” he tells Fast Company.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos this week, it announced the latest winners of the contest. They include a team from the University of Pittsburgh, which is making food packaging from layers of polyethylene (which is recyclable). Each layer is nano-engineered to have different properties (like keeping food dry and unspoiled by light). But when the material is melted down, it returns to the same state as traditional polyethylene, so there are no additional steps in the recycling process.

Another winner is California-based Full Cycle Bioplastics, which develops a product called PHA. It’s made from organic waste and is completely compostable and marine-degradable. It breaks down according to how much bacteria it’s exposed to; in environments like compost heaps, it will degrade faster than on, say, supermarket shelves.

“We not only offer a bio-based plastic made from a cost-competitive process,” says Full Cycle CEO Andrew Falcon. “[But], by combining it with other compostable materials [we] create a viable alternative to the non-recyclable, multi-layer films on the market today.” Full Cycle is partnered with Elk Packaging and Associated Labels, which are helping bring the material to market.

We covered the first batch of circular design ideas back in October. Those included Evoware, an Indonesia startup that produces food packaging from seaweed, and Algramo, a social enterprise from Chile that packages food in refillable containers (the name means “by the gram”).  Tom Chan, a student at Cooper Union college, in New York, was another winner. He helped develop the all-paper, foldable Triocup. The cup comes in one piece–no detachable lid–making it more recyclable than containers in two pieces. Chan, who now works on the idea full-time, says he’s currently testing the idea with coffee drinkers on the Lower East Side. All the contestants are joining a year-long accelerator program to further develop.

Opsomer says working with large companies like PepsiCo and early-stage ideas like Triocup mean attacking plastic waste from different ends of the same problem. “At the end of the day, these are great innovators. But they cannot change the system by themselves. We’ll put them in the accelerator program to help get their ideas to actual marketable products. But ultimately we need industry to take them to scale,” he says.

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