Glass-paper hybrid and data visualisation using abandoned flip-flops amongst winners in innovation award

Three inventive solutions to tackling ocean waste win accolades and investment in joint initiative between Sky and National Geographic.

Published 17 Dec 2019, 17:43 GMT
Washed up bottles, flip flops and other visible plastic waste on Christmas Island, Australia. The Ocean ...
Washed up bottles, flip flops and other visible plastic waste on Christmas Island, Australia. The Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge was born to seek solutions to stem the flow of single use plastics – much of them domestic items – into our seas by tackling the source.
Photograph by Water Frame, Alamy

Since its launch in February 2019, nearly 300 teams around the world have entered the inaugural Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge (OPIC) – an international rallying cry for bright ideas dedicated to tackling the epidemic of plastic waste threatening our seas. This week in Washington DC, the winners received a total of nearly $1.3 million (£1 million) in prizes and investment to develop the projects and scale them up. 

A joint initiative between Sky Ocean Ventures and National Geographic, OPIC entrants were challenged to devise methods to reduce the flow of single-use plastics into oceans, and thus slow their catastrophic – and as yet not fully understood – effects on ecosystems and environments. 300 entrants were refined to 24 finalists, which included projects and implementations as diverse as edible cutlery and rentable beverage receptacles, to sustainable delivery methods, to impactful communication techniques. The winners were selected from three innovation tracks: Design, Circular Economy and Data Visualisation. 

Ideas + investment = solutions

The challenge’s grand prize included coaching and mentorship from industry leaders to help refine their projects to make the greatest possible impact. This commitment was realised with monetary backing, too. As well as the prize of $300,000 shared by the three teams, two of the projects – winner Algramo and runner-up EcoFlexy – now have the commitment of $1 million in investment from Sky to support their development into viable, scaleable products.

The awards reflected both National Geographic's and Sky's commitment to not only revolutionising awareness and attitude towards single use plastic, but investing in solutions – realised through initiatives such as Planet or Plastic? and Sky Ocean Ventures

Key to this crisis are seemingly innocuous human-caused conveniences: everything from earbuds to plastic bags and single use packaging. Such a tide of problems suggests that the solution is equally domestic – in our everyday behaviours and consumptions. 

“The passion, dedication and ingenuity of the winners give us confidence that we can turn the tide on the plastic waste crisis,” said Michael L. Ulica, president and chief operating officer of the National Geographic Society. “We are proud to support these innovators.”

“Sky Ocean Ventures and National Geographic launched this competition to find diverse and transformational businesses,” said Jamie Rowles, Head of Investments for Sky Ocean Ventures, adding that each of the three winners have “dedication and commitment... We’re looking forward to working with them to develop their products and get them to market.”

National Geographic Society president Mike Ulica speaks at the Ocean Plastics Innovation Challenge ceremony in Washington DC.
Photograph by Sam Kittner, National Geographic

Ocean Plastics Innovation Award 2019: The winners

Winning the 'Design' category, French company Qwarzo produces cost-effective and 100% biodegradable and compostable solutions for items such as coffee stirrers, cups and straws. A clue to its innovation is in the name, as Qwarzo's Manuel Milliery explained: “Qwarzo is a coating – it's paper, plus sand. We are bringing together the qualities of paper and glass in a perfect substitute for plastic packaging.” 

This Chilean social startup attempts to solve two problems associated with packaging: the 'poverty tax' of packaging cost, and plastic waste. Algramo is developing bulk packaging dispensers that offer affordable, incentive-based solutions for companies. Users are rewarded for the saving of plastic – visualised using the easily-relatable equivalent quantity of plastic bags. Team member Jose Manuel explains: "We're offering the cheapest price in the market but also giving you an economic incentive to re-use the packaging.” 

Communicating the scale of plastic waste using waste collected from a Bali beach, this German initiative spearheaded by Moritz Stefaner, Liina Klauss and Skye Moretz uses an unlikely object – the flip-flop – to create data sculptures that visualise the paths of all plastic ever produced. 

Find out more about the winners and finalists here. 

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