Food wrappers, crisp packets, coffee cup lids. Plastic packaging is ubiquitous in modern life, but most of it is only used once before being thrown away, causing waste and polluting the environment.
Ellen MacArthur broke records sailing around the world. Now she wants to fix the economy
On Thursday, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched a $2 million prize to rethink how we use plastic packaging and stop it clogging the oceans. It’s asking people to redesign plastic packaging to make it easier to reuse or recycle, and to make more plastic materials recyclable.
“So much plastic ends up in the ocean that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean,” Rob Opsomer, who leads the Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, tells WIRED.
Set up by Dame Ellen MacArthur, best known for her record-breaking sailing trip around the world, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is dedicated to pushing for a circular economy – a system where resources are used and re-used, rather than wasted. When MacArthur was on her boat, she had to think carefully about everything she took with her and make do with limited supplies, just as the global economy has to be mindful of its consumption of finite resources.
“Plastics, and plastic packaging particularly is probably one of the most iconic examples of our current linear, take-make-dispose economic model,” says Opsomer.
Just 14 per cent of plastic packaging is currently recycled, according to a 2016 report by the Foundation, with the rest – worth $80-$120 billion – going to waste. The Foundation calculates that 8 million tonnes of plastics end up in the oceans every year.
It’s a huge issue, but just a simple design tweak could make a difference. Opsomer gave the example of ring pulls on drinks cans. In the past, ring pulls came completely off the can when the drink was opened, which meant they were almost always discarded. Redesigning the ring pull so that it remains attached to the can when the drink is open makes it a lot easier to recycle.
The new prize is split into two $1 million challenges, the first of which seeks similar design ideas for small plastic products like coffee cup lids and plastic sachets.
The second challenge is aimed more at scientists and entrepreneurs with a background in materials science. It challenges them to make plastic packaging that is currently unrecyclable easier to recycle. For example, crisp packets are made of fused layers of material, which keeps your crisps fresh but makes it difficult to recycle the packet.
Winners of the prize, which is also supported by The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, will receive a grant and be entered into an accelerator to develop their idea, with the hope of eventually attracting investors and going into production.
While the goal of the initiative is to tackle the root cause of plastic waste, Opsomer admits there is no silver bullet to the problem. Even if all plastics were made recyclable, for example, people would still need to put in the effort to recycle them. But he imagines a future where all plastics could be used again and again as useful products – “and the concept of plastic waste itself gets eliminated.”