The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, along with The Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit, launch a $2 million New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, which calls for innovators to find new ways of designing packaging to help keep plastics out of the ocean. The Prize is funded by Wendy Schmidt as Lead Philanthropic Partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative.

Demand for plastic products is expected to double in the next 20 years - but the plastics system is broken. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with the remainder, worth $80-120 billion, lost as waste. Most plastic packaging items are used only once before being discarded, often ending up polluting the environment. If nothing changes, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. This new prize aims to keep plastics as valuable materials in the economy, and out of the ocean.

Dame Ellen MacArthur, the world-record-breaking sailor and founder of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, explained: "After 40 years of effort, globally only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, with one third escaping collection and ending up in the environment. If we want to change this, we must fundamentally rethink the way we make and use plastics. We need better materials, clever product designs and circular business models. That’s why we are launching the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, calling for innovators, designers, scientists and entrepreneurs to help create a plastics system that works.”

HRH The Prince of Wales, who has been a champion for the health and resilience of the ocean for over forty years, will deliver the keynote speech at the launch event. At a meeting earlier this year with business leaders, designers and material experts, The Prince emphasised the urgency of the need to re-think the global plastics system and highlighted the important role of innovation and design in the transition to a circular economy in order to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean.

John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State, who has provided a video address for the launch event, commented in support of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize says, “Focusing on ocean health, focusing on an initiative to save the oceans, could not be more timely, and it could not be more critical.”

To achieve the goal of eliminating plastic packaging waste, the Prize is composed of two parallel challenges:

1.    The $1 million Circular Design Challenge invites applicants to rethink how we can get products to people without generating plastic waste. The Challenge will focus on small-format packaging items (10% of all plastic packaging) such as shampoo sachets, wrappers, straws and coffee cup lids, which are currently almost never recycled and often end up in the environment. Anyone with a good idea for how to get products to people without using disposable packaging, or for how to design plastic packaging that is easier to recycle, can enter this Challenge. Challenge partner is OpenIDEO.

2.    The $1 million Circular Materials Challenge seeks ways to make all plastic packaging recyclable. About 13% of today’s packaging, such as crisp packets and food wrappers, is made of layers of different materials fused together. This multi-layer construction provides important functions like keeping food fresh, but also makes the packaging hard to recycle. The Challenge therefore invites innovators to find alternative materials that could be recycled or composted. Challenge partner is NineSigma.

Innovators who apply to the Prize are competing for up to $2,000,000 in grants and visibility of their solutions to major businesses, the innovator community and the public. Winners will enter a 12-month accelerator programme offering exclusive access to industry experts, commercial guidance, feedback on user and scalability requirements, advice on performance expectations, and access to innovation labs for testing and development. The first winners will be announced later this year.

The judging panel for the challenge consists of senior executives from major businesses, widely recognized scientists, designers and academics. Solutions will be assessed against a broad range of criteria carefully crafted in collaboration with the challenge partners and participants of the New Plastics Economy initiative.  

Wendy Schmidt, who has already funded two major XPrize competitions focused on oceans, is funding the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize. “Working towards circularity in the way we make, use, and distribute plastic packaging will revolutionize the scale of the human footprint on our planet, hugely reducing plastic waste and its devastating impact on ocean health. The value of keeping materials in the economy is massive compared to the losses we suffer when plastic leaks into the very living systems we depend upon for our survival. The New Plastics Economy Prize is a call for creative design and technical innovation at a critical time,” she says.

The Challenge Partners are OpenIDEO (Circular Design Challenge) and NineSigma (Circular Materials Challenge). The challenge has been scoped in close coordination with the initiative’s more than 40 participants, including Core Partners Amcor, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, MARS, Novamont, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Veolia.