It’s hard to conceptualize every piece of saran wrap, discarded sheet of bubble wrap, and plastic baggie adding up to tons and tons of waste. But pile up they do. It’s estimated that thin-film plastic—the lightweight material that’s often used as a barrier or wrapping of some kind—constitutes 46% of the approximately 14 million metric tons of new plastic that enters the ocean annually. 180 billion thin film plastic polybags are used by the fashion industry a year alone. The Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize aims to change that, and it just got one step closer by revealing the eight finalists for its inaugural prize.
Selected from 64 applicants on six continents, the finalists presented the panel of judges with a working prototype to replace the polybags the fashion industry is currently reliant on. The finalists are Genecis, Kelpi, Lwanda Biotech, Marea, Notpla, Sway, Xampla, and Zero Circle. They include alternatives made from local algae in Iceland (Marea), organic waste and reprogrammed bacteria (Canada’s Genecis), and peas (the University of Cambridge-based Xampla). Seaweed emerged as the most frequently harnessed alternative, with four of the eight finalists using it as a material. “We’re trying to set a new standard,” says Dr. Dune Ives, the CEO of Lonely Whale, the non-profit that Ford partnered with for the Prize.
Ives explained that the entrants were judged not on merely making a biodegradable product, but one that “biologically degrades.” The difference is subtle to a non-scientist, but crucial. Biodegradable products can only decompose safely in certain environments, like an industrial composting facility. If, say, a compostable straw gets mixed in with trash headed for landfill, it will not biodegrade. “Biologically degradable means that it could degrade without harm to the environment on land and in the ocean, and if the unthinkable happens and it was ingested by a sea creature, we want to know that it would safely pass through,” she said.
That scenario is exactly what the finalists’s prototypes will be put through next. For a year, their products will be tested in Caribbean and Pacific Northwest waters as well as in a lab. The Seattle Aquarium will also model what would happen to the finalists’ materials should a marine mammal ingest them. (Ives can’t wait to see this innovation in particular.) On top of all that, the products will be evaluated to ensure that they “minimize negative social and environmental impacts, meet industry performance standards, and are also cost-competitive, scalable, and market-ready by 2025,” according to a press release.