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Designers Take Plastic Packaging off the Streets and out of the Ocean

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy design challenge has awarded $1 million to six innovators who are taking the plastic out of packaging and redesigning the ways people consume common products.

Written by Paul Tullis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A plastic water bottle floats in the Pacific Ocean, off Santa Monica, California.Citizen of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Forty years after the recycling symbol was introduced, just 14 percent of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced each year worldwide is collected for recycling while 33 percent ends up littering landscapes and the ocean, according to a report prepared by the United Kingdom’s Ellen MacArthur Foundation and presented at the World Economic Forum last January.

“Obviously, if you look at the numbers the only conclusion you can draw is that existing approaches have not scaled up to the extent required,” said Rob Opsomer, the head of systemic initiatives at the foundation. “We need to get the biggest producers of the materials, consumer brands and the cities who collect, sort and recycle together to establish collaborations across the value chain.”

In another effort to spur change in how plastics are produced and consumed, the foundation this month awarded prizes totaling $1 million to entrepreneurs who devised design solutions for some of the most common forms of plastic that are used once and discarded. Winning designs, announced at the Our Ocean conference in Malta on October 5, included a container for small servings of condiments, such as soy sauce and ketchup, that decays without composting and is edible; packaging made of seaweed; and a reusable coffee-cup ecosystem aimed at replacing the 100 billion single-use cups and lids consumed worldwide annually.

The prize is part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy initiative. It’s one step toward what it calls a “circular economy,” which “aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times,” according to the foundation’s website.

“We need to change the way we make and use plastic so that it doesn’t become waste in the first place and it can be reused and recycled over and over again,” Opsomer said.

After the positive response to the report from government officials and business executives at the World Economic Forum, Opsomer began working with companies and municipalities to reduce the amount of plastic produced and to make it easier for plastics to be recycled. The report estimated that plastic packaging worth between $80 billion and $120 billion is thrown away each year.

“Since I started these conversations almost two years ago, there has been an absolute step change in the level of interest and ambition around this topic,” Opsomer said. At the Our Ocean conference, six companies, including PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Mars, committed to make all their plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. (The commitments are voluntary, however, and no enforcement mechanism exists should they fail to meet their pledge.)

Much of the plastic packaging produced today is recyclable, but ends up in the environment anyway. Opsomer stressed the importance of developing a system that supports individual efforts at recycling “to make it easy for people to do the right thing.”

He pointed out that in Asia, where 80 percent of ocean plastic originates, few facilities for recycling exist outside of major cities in the wealthiest countries. Instead, “waste pickers” collect the types of plastic they can sell – and leave those they can’t. If the companies producing the plastic only make sellable plastic, more of it will be picked up. The global recycling rate for PET bottles, for instance, is 55 percent, and in places with a return price on bottles, it’s 80–95 percent. “Individual behavior is a piece of the puzzle, but not the critical component,” Opsomer said.

That means significant change can happen by changing the behavior of a few hundred or thousand companies and governments, rather than billions of plastic consumers. They have an incentive to do so, according to Opsomer. “By converging the many types of plastic that go into packaging, that would save costs with a simpler procurement and supply chain,” he said. “And if you’re a recycler you have the prospect to increase your business.”

Winners of the New Plastics Economy design challenge include the Chilean social enterprise Algramo, which tackled the problem of tiny plastic bottles (also called sachets) such as those used for shampoo. In much of the developing world, people purchase hygiene products in very small amounts, and the packaging has a low recycling rate, if it even is recyclable, as few recycling facilities exist in rural areas.

“In the world today, we use about 100 billion sachets in one year and most of those sachets don’t get recycled and escape into our environment,” Brian Bauer, Algramo’s sustainability manager, said at the Our Ocean conference.

Said Opsomer: “What you could do is rethink the problem of how do you get a small portion of shampoo onto the head of an individual in an emerging market without using this tiny bottle.” Algramo’s answer was to leverage an existing network of dry-goods dispensers in stores in small cities around Chile and adapt them so they can be used to dispense liquids into reusable containers.

Then there’s the conundrum of the “tear-off pieces,” or TOPS, in plastic packaging, noted Kevin Vyse, senior packaging technologist and packaging innovation lead at U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer. “Every one of us does it – we tear off the top of packaging and look at the big piece and say that’s the recyclable bit,” he said at the Our Oceans conference. “This little piece will disappear but nobody knows where. Those TOPS have to be designed out.”

Another design challenge winner was the U.K.’s Cup Club, founded by architect Safia Qereshi. Her idea to reduce the waste of single-use coffee cups from cafes such as Starbucks was rooted in the old system of delivering milk, and the chai wallas (roadside tea vendors) still common in South Asia. Just 15 percent of coffee in cafés is consumed on the premises, meaning there’s no hope of recycling a huge volume of the cups handed out.

With Cup Club, a participating café dispenses the drink in the Cup Club container, which is made of solid polypropylene designed to be used 200 times and is fitted with a radio frequency ID tag. When the coffee-lover is done with the cup, she returns it to a pickup location (which might be the café where the cup was dispensed, or someplace else). With the RFID tag linked to the purchaser, if she doesn’t return the cup, Cup Club charges her for the cost.

If she leaves it somewhere, another participant in the system can grab it and collect a reward for returning the cup to a pickup hub. Cup Club collects the cups from there, washes them and returns them to cafes. “We have developed a way for consumers to be more responsible and if they aren’t, for other consumers to benefit,” Qereshi said. “You have to incentivize and reward – that’s one of the features.”

The idea requires a critical mass to succeed, so Qereshi is focusing first on closed environments with high coffee consumption, such as university campuses. “We’re first looking at London’s population of 400,000 students, because they’re a digitally intelligent tribe, and more willing to buy goods and services that have purpose and match to their personal values,” she said. Cup loss in pilot programs has been just 10–13 percent.

“For brands, it’s a great opportunity because you can see your cups will never end up as ocean debris,” Qereshi said.

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