Susan Fullerton and colleagues are one of five winners of international circular materials challenge

Each year more than eight million tons of plastics pollute the ocean, forming mammoth, so-called “garbage patches” via strong currents. Even with new collection methods, only 0.5 percent out of that volume is currently removed from the seas. One solution to this growing crisis is to prevent plastic from becoming waste, to begin with – and Susan Fullerton and colleagues are one of five international teams awarded for their novel solutions to this problem. 

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and NineSigma announced the winners of the Circular Materials Challenge. The winners will each receive a $200,000 share of the $1 million prize. Together with the winners of the earlier $1 million Circular Design Challenge last October, these innovations will join a 12-month accelerator program in collaboration with Think Beyond Plastic, working with experts to make their innovations marketable at scale.

The group was one of two winners in Category 1: “Make unrecyclable packaging recyclable,” and proposes using nano-engineering to create a recyclable material that can replace complex multi-layered packaging – mimicking the way nature uses just a few molecular building blocks to create a huge variety of materials.

According to one of the team members, current packaging layers for food products and drink containers are made of several different materials that are responsible for maintaining freshness, blocking UV light, holding inks for labeling, etc. Because the initial manufacturing process, the layers cannot be easily separated and therefore cannot be recycled.

The team’s solution is to alter the nano-structure of polyethylene – simple plastic – to mimic the properties of other complex materials (such as PET, EVOH, or even aluminum) in current laminate packaging. Since the basic chemistry of each layer would remain polyethylene, the packaging can then be collected with other plastics and recycled using traditional methods, removing it from the waste stream.

The importance to reducing and reusing plastic is clear: according to the foundation’s 2016 New Plastic Economy report, by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20 percent of total oil production, and 15 percent of the annual carbon budget.

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