Earlier this year, What Design Can Do and IKEA Foundation launched the No Waste Challenge, asking the creative community to come up with bold solutions to address the enormous impact of waste on climate change. In April, the open call ended with an exceptional 1409 submissions. The overwhelming response suggests that waste is not just an urgent and global issue, but also one that is especially important to a growing number of designers and innovators. The proof was in the pudding: from Nairobi to Tokyo, Amsterdam to São Paulo, creatives answered our call with both optimism and a clear sense of responsibility. 

Representing ideas from participants in 105 countries, the entries also offer a snapshot of what’s brewing in the emerging field of circular design. What are the big issues shaping the conversation right now? What opportunities have captured the imaginations of creatives — and those of the wider public? Below, we’ve identified four key trends found amongst the No Waste Challenge entries.

BEYOND PLASTIC 

One unmistakable trend is the interest in finding alternatives to plastic, a clear reproach to the once-popular material. Many applicants opted for multi-pronged approaches by developing new materials from organic waste streams; diverting resources from landfill and reducing plastic use in one fell swoop. Examples include Ottan Studio (Turkey), which upcycles fruit peels and nutshells into beautiful, durable resins, and Cheer Project (India), which turns surplus pine needles into 100% compostable bioplastics. 

Furthermore, across the Global track as well as all six City tracks in the Challenge, there is a focus on eliminating plastic packaging. Many projects are improvements on existing designs, like the Easy Disposal Bento Box (Japan) or Notpla (UK), a startup making sachets out of seaweed that look just like plastic, but that will naturally decompose in weeks. Others explore reuse and collection models, like Desplastifícate (Mexico), or propose entirely new marketplaces, like Shibamboo (India). What is notable is that most stress the importance of waste prevention; helping to imagine an entire world of not just recycled but also recyclable alternatives to plastic.

LESS WASTE FROM FARM TO TABLE

Also plain to see amongst the entries, is a concern for reducing and managing organic waste. Innovation in this sector is more than welcome, as currently a shocking 30% of all food produced for human consumption is lost or thrown away. In tackling this problem, many creatives have taken on a local approach, finding inspiration in the strengths and weaknesses of their city’s food systems. 

In Amsterdam for example, there is a focus on promoting shorter, more transparent food chains, while engaging consumers to better understand how much waste they’re producing and where it is going. Examples include Waste to Meat, which aims to close the food-waste loop by reintroducing pigs into the cycle, or Moving Towards Zero, a platform promoting waste reduction and local produce through gamification. In projects submitted for São Paulo and Mexico City, the emphasis shifts to more immediate solutions for managing food and garden waste like composting, as seen in Plate to Plate (Brazil) and Milieu Biogas & Compost (Mexico). Cast your eye to Nairobi, and the focus moves on to farm waste, with entries like Nutriento, which uses insects to turn organic waste into animal feed, and Nyungu Africa, a social impact enterprise making sanitary products from underutilized pineapple and maize husks.

FAST-FASHION ALTERNATIVES

After a year of work–live–and–shop from home, it’s perhaps unsurprising that a great number of creatives submitted ideas dealing with the environmental impact of the fashion and e-commerce industry. This is especially true in places where fast fashion has become a staple, and convenience a consumer priority, like Amsterdam and Tokyo. 

Amongst these entries, three approaches stand out in the effort to reduce textile waste. The first is focused on changing consumer habits through awareness campaigns and tools; like Closed Loop (Netherlands) and Eco Ego (UK). The second is to minimize waste in clothing production, like Algorithmic Couture (Japan), which creates zero-waste fashion patterns, and Fabulous Fungi (Netherlands), which offers an alternative to harmful textile dyes. The last strategy is centred on promoting reuse, resale and other circular business models, like Loop Collective (Mexico), and Africa Collect Textiles (Kenya). 

CITIZEN INITIATIVES

Lastly, the most common theme amongst the entries was empowerment. From apps incentivising better recycling habits, to community farming concepts and skill-sharing platforms, many innovations share a similar line of thought: if you want people to change, bring them closer together. Ideas that follow a participatory approach include The Fiber Workshop (France), Bio-Construction Rural Center (Colombia), and Tech Fix Social Network (Kenya).

Similarly, there is a clear push for decentralized systems, and inventive ideas which break down the usual hierarchies in waste management. This can be seen in the many entries which map new connections between citizens, governments and businesses, like MyMalba (India), which champions waste pickers, and the Refood Movement (Portugal), which distributes surplus food from restaurants and supermarkets to families in need.

While identifying trends like these helps us make sense of the pressure points facing communities around the world, the sheer number and diversity in entries is equally inspiring. It is also encouraging to see a wide range of applicants: from artists and biologists, to engineers and entrepreneurs. Solutions also varied from low to high tech; showing that innovation is not only about designing new products for the future but often about learning from the past and using what is already available. And perhaps most importantly, these ideas show that even though perspectives on waste differ from region to region, community to community, no circular design exists in a vacuum. Much is interconnected, and the more change we invest in today, the better our chances are at a full and fair transition.

To see the entire catalogue of projects, visit the No Waste Challenge platform.

Top image: Waste to Meat (Netherlands), submitted by Bram De Vos.

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