How might we get products to people without generating plastic waste?
Run in partnership with OpenIDEO, the Circular Design challenge seeks to catalyse innovation and help to advance the development of new packaging formats and/or alternative delivery models. The challenge specifically targets the redesign of small-format items - which make up 10% of all plastic packaging - and generally don’t get recycled today, either because they are so light and small they get filtered out in automated sorting processes, or because they are not worth the effort to be collected and sorted manually. Such items include things like sauce and shampoo sachets, wrappers, tear-offs, straws, takeaway coffee cup lids and bottle caps. You can read the full challenge brief here.
More than 200 ideas...
Launched by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on 18th May as part of the $2M New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, which also includes a $1M Circular Materials challenge, the Circular Design challenge has already received over 200 different idea submissions, many of which represent promising responses to the challenge brief. However, there's still plenty of opportunity to engage and contribute at the various funding levels, so don't miss out.
What's been submitted so far?
Here are some clusters of the more common ideas, why they're potentially interesting, and some of the remaining challenges that need to be addressed. Responses to the Circular Design challenge are not limited to these examples, but they may offer prospective candidates a little inspiration.
Multiple ideas touch upon the theme, "let's create a packaging that disappears as a consequence of the product being used". These are all compelling since they can potentially eliminate the plastic container altogether. Whether edible or water soluble, such containers could still fulfil their duty as packaging if appropriately designed, and not cause any negative effects to the system as un-recyclable waste. Especially for food (edible or compostable packaging) and personal care (water soluble packaging), one can see such packaging applications working.
A crucial barrier to overcome is the challenge preserving the contents and retaining shelf life. Plastics, especially multi-material laminates, are selected due to their phenomenal barrier properties (keeping oxygen, moisture, CO2 out for example). High-acid containing products are extra sensitive. Edible or water soluble packaging are, by definition, not as robust, which creates challenges in the supply chain. Where is the product packaged and how does it get to the customer before it gets spoiled? How long can it be stored? Is the user inconvenienced by a shorter best before date?
Innovators must demonstrate a rethink, not only of the material and format, but also the business model of how the product is brought to the market and its end users. These ideas may even be enhanced by smarter delivery models, such as dispenser systems or subscription models, which we'll discuss later in this article.
Beverage container reuse models
It is now well known that vast amounts of coffee lids and cups are wasted as part of a fast-growing 'coffee-to-go' lifestyle. Coffee lids are rarely economically recyclable, and while paper cups are recyclable in principle, contamination from the drink, the plastic lining on the inside of the cup and the geographical spread of them after use, all conspire to make them notorious litter and landfill items. A broad, collaborative, use-return-reuse cup and lid system offers a vision to change this unintended consequence of our convenience, and could be a powerful way of designing out one of the world's most common forms of plastic waste.
For cups and lids especially, a major barrier is the reluctance to accept a standardised system among coffee shop competitors. Designers and innovators must aim to develop, or at least move towards, a convincing explanation of how a reuse system could scale across several vendors, e.g. how to use one standardised system but still be able to effectively brand the cups and lids?
Furthermore, consideration needs to be given on how high-value reusable cups are recovered, almost certainly through some form of disposal system. How might the user get the support system that they need to keep or return such an item?
New bottle cap formats
Several innovators have identified that keeping the bottle cap on is possibly the safest way to ensure that it is collected for recycling. Even if it is not made of the same material, it could be separated from the PET bottle in a modern recycling facility. A cap system that keeps the lid safely attached to the bottle, while allowing for convenient unscrewing and drinking, therefore does represent a convincing mechanism to enable better recycling of caps, which are currently too small to be collected and recycled in an economically effective way. The Circular Design challenge has received several proposed ideas that make a serious attempt at creating a feasible stay-on system, while also maintaining user convenience.
There are still questions to be answered. These ideas may change the material needed (and therefore cost of production) to make a new cap. Added material is a potentially significant barrier for the industry, so these ideas must aim to provide evidence that any added material: 1) is as small/minor as possible 2) that any added cost is compensated by increased value elsewhere, e.g. intangible brand enhancement.
Dispenser delivery models
Sachets are notorious for their material complexity, small format and tendency to be wasted. An intuitive response is to design out the need for them entirely. The challenge has received several ideas based on this concept, and a number of different thoughts on how this might work as a business model. Visions include both systems that portion out the product in a (custom-sized), water soluble or compostable container, and systems based on reusable containers.
There are a few commercial barriers inhibiting the potential success of such ideas including: 1) the loss of brand exposure, 2) a larger risk of counterfeiting, 3) convincing retailers to invest in, and therefore lock themselves into, a dispenser system.
Innovators and designers must think about the opportunities to develop a convincing go-to-market scenario and the technical workings of such a system.
Merging several formats
A number of concepts aim to design items that combine functionalities, for example one-piece, cup-lid containers, or lid straws. The potential to turn several non-recyclable small-format items into one recyclable item is obviously intriguing, and could even become a branding edge for companies or vendors who use them.
Of course, merging two small format items into one doesn't guarantee that the new item will be economically attractive to recycle. Moreover, as several designers have identified themselves, merging formats may create shapes that are more difficult to store, transport and manufacture.
Local design solutions that incentivise recycling
Small format packaging is as valuable as any other item, but problems lie in the challenges and effort needed to collect enough to make it worthwhile. Many of the challenge's designers have identified that, at a local level, especially in low-to-middle income economies, it might be possible to install a technical possibility to allow users to bundle small formats together and to create price incentives to recover it. An appropriate 'deposit refund' scheme, enabling policymaking, and support from industry could help to ensure that innovations create viable recycling markets locally.
Making these local schemes work in practice requires some careful thinking. For example, designing a collection system that helps bundle many small formats will need to reward the user for the extra work that they have put in, while creating 'currencies' to trigger a better regional materials market for plastics will need broad buy-in and support from local government.
Inspired to get involved? Read the full challenge brief and submit your idea before the deadline - Friday, July 28.