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Awards are distractions: Niche concepts will not help to achieve circularity

Marcian Lee, Ph.D., Research Analyst
November 29, 2021

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and businesses encourage circular innovation through awards and competitions. Startups bring fresh ideas to the space, foster innovation, and induce competition; in return, they get cash, legitimacy, and access to resources that can help them accelerate growth. While the intention is good, novelty and hype tend to prevail over practicality during judging. Many of these niche technologies will not help achieve circularity, and the awards themselves become no more meaningful than medals on a wine bottle label – decorations that distract and artificially inflate the startup's value.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation's (EMF's) New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize serves as a good example. Between 2017 and 2018, the EMF gave out $2 million and support to accelerate the commercialization of technologies the Foundation deemed practical circular solutions – there were six winners in the circular design category and five in the circular materials category. Naturally, the winners were assumed to be leaders spearheading the charge against plastic pollution. However, many of the 11 prizewinners have not made much headway three years after the prizes were presented, and most of them have faded into the ether despite having backing from such a prestigious name. We provide an update on the prizewinners:

Companies still actively developing their award-winning concept

The following companies have met appreciable milestones over the past several years. Cupclub and Algramo seek to change consumer behavior by introducing an ecosystem that supports the use of reusable packaging. Full Cycle Bioplastics (FCB) and VTT have both developed biomaterials as plastic alternatives. Unlike some bioplastics, the raw materials used by FCB and VTT do not directly compete with food production.

  1. CupClub (now Clubzero) (U.K.): Returnable cup ecosystem. Consumers drop off cups at designated return points. The cups are then washed and reused. Rebranded as Clubzero and includes takeaway containers. Currently running pilots in London and Palo Alto, with partners like Starbucks and McDonald's.

  1. Algramo (Chile): Reusable packaging system with dispensers and cheap containers to refill small volumes of liquids. Originally operated off a fleet of small vehicles but recently has included installations at retail stores. Raised $8.5 million in May 2021. Running pilots in Jakarta, New York, Mexico, and London.

  1. Full Cycle Bioplastics (U.S.): Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) from heterogeneous waste streams. The company launched a 10 lbs/day pilot facility in 2019 and is looking to raise funds for a 2,000 lbs/day commercial facility.

  1. VTT Technical Research Centre (Finland): Cellulose-based thermoplastics. Still in the testing and development phase and will be looking to scale from the lab to larger machinery with industry partners like Arla Foods, Paulig, and Wipak.

Companies that have pivoted away from their initial concept or that have become inactive

The following companies have become inactive or pivoted their technologies to new applications since winning award funding. Most of these winners worked with novel materials like seaweed-derived biomaterials (Delta and Evoware), and the trend highlights how difficult bringing new materials to market is. Miwa had to pivot away from a reusable packaging and delivery system for groceries to something that resembles Algramo's concept, and TrioCup attempted to design out single-use plastic lids in takeaway cups.

  1. Delta (U.K.): Seaweed-based sauce sachet developed by Skipping Rocks Lab, which rebranded to become Notpla. Notpla's partnership with Just Eats and Unilever on sauce sachets (probably referring to Delta) has not progressed beyond trials. While Notpla has indicated that it intends to sell the sauce sachets at the retail level eventually, it has not been very successful. NotPLA is now focused on seaweed-based coatings and coated food boxes.

  1. Evoware (Indonesia): Marine-degradable, edible seaweed-based bioplastic material. Evoware, now a brand under Evo & Co., makes a seaweed-based film that appears to be commercialized, retailing at $390 per square meter. However, since winning the award, the company has focused on other products, such as PLA and bagasse-based bioplastics. In addition, recent activity indicates that the company now focuses on business operations. Despite its successfully commercialization, seaweed-based packaging has not made much of an impact as a plastics alternative and has still largely remained a novelty.

  1. Miwa (Czech Republic): Reusable packaging and delivery system for grocery. The original concept was a system where the consumer orders the exact number of items they need and the wholesaler packs them into a reusable container, which the consumer picks up from a store or gets delivered to them. The company has since abandoned that idea and is now developing a reusable capsule and cup dispenser system for retail stores.

  1. TrioCup (now Unocup) (U.S.): Origamilike approach to designing lids in takeaway cups. The original patent has been abandoned. Its redesign patent is pending. The company raised $13,000 via Kickstarter. There have been no recent updates, with some backers canceling pledges.

  1. Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate Research (Germany): Bio-based and biodegradable coatings to improve the barrier properties of bioplastics. It won two more awards in 2020 but has not formed any spinoff companies. There has been no news on industry uptake or other developments.

  1. Aronax Technologies Spain (now Altais Nova) (Spain): Magnetic additives to improve the barrier properties of plastics. The magnetic properties make it easier to separate and recover the plastics during recycling. The company has had no public activity since 2018.

  1. University of Pittsburgh (U.S.): Nanoengineering to alter the nanostructure of PET to mimic the properties of various layers in multilayer packaging, without changing the chemistry – it is still just PET. No spinoff was formed, and no development was publicly disclosed.

Although the intention of the award was to accelerate the commercialization of practical solutions, several of these winning concepts are anything but that. Some are fantastic scientific breakthroughs, but they either are so costly to implement or their applications so niche that they are unlikely to make a dent in achieving circularity, let alone past the laboratory doors. Others sounded exciting on paper but were forced to pivot their technologies after failing to generate commercial interest. Overall, the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize awards were far from what they were supposed to be, funneling resources away from more realistic solutions and thereby slowing our transition to a circular economy. Losing sight of the award's objectives becomes a problem when it distracts stakeholders and key decision-makers from the need for practical solutions.

For organizers to do better, the award's objective must be clear, and the judging criteria must be centered around this objective – is it meant to help accelerate the commercialization of promising startups, or is it intended to applaud creative, albeit impractical, solutions? The distinction is vital because it gives the award context and justifies how it should be managed. In the first scenario, organizers can demand greater accountability for resources to ensure responsible use. In the second scenario, winners will not have similar obligations because the award is simply a pat on the back. However, the more easily these are handed out, the less meaningful they become.

Lastly, it is important to get how award winners are selected right because awards can influence how startups are perceived. Circularity awards can be (mis)interpreted as indicators of merit; they can distract stakeholders like investors and potential partners and mask critical issues that the startup must overcome to scale. At best, misinformed decisions lead to financial losses – at worst, they lose precious time. With the clock ticking on the climate crisis, circularity organizations have a social responsibility not to be mesmerized by fancy slide decks and startups that promise the moon but cannot possibly deliver it.

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