Experts predict that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish. This is something we’ve known for years, and yet we’ve struggled to turn off the tap on our plastic problem. Worldwide, we buy a million plastic bottles a minute, and recycle less than 10% of what we throw away. This makes plastic not only one of the most dangerous and persistent pollutants on Earth, but also one of the most popular. Today, what was once lauded as a ‘material of a thousand uses’ has become one with just as many problems. 

Fortunately, experts also believe that innovative, game-changing solutions are within reach. A growing number of scientists, engineers and designers around the globe are working hard—and working together—to make plastic production and disposal safer and more sustainable. Some are reworking the question entirely, and inventing new products, models and futures that ditch the concept of disposable design altogether. 

“We have to remember that waste is an idea.
And if we invented it, we can un-invent it.” — Bruce Mau

The WDCD No Waste Challenge, launched earlier this year, aims to bring these ideas to the fore, looking at how plastic waste can be prevented at various stages in the production and consumption cycle. We are thrilled to have the support of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in this effort, through their Plastic Smart Cities initiative. Since 2018, the initiative has supported cities and coastal centers in taking bold action to achieve no plastic in nature by 2030. To amplify the movement, they’ve compiled a growing catalogue of best practices from around the world, showcasing practical, field-tested solutions from innovators working on the frontlines. Below, we’ve picked out a few inspiring cases that show where creativity can make a difference when it comes to plastic waste.

Refill, don’t replace

So much of our plastic problem is driven by our desire for what is cheap and convenient. This is especially true for packaging, including single-use plastic bottles. But habits can be unmade — and polls suggest that 65% of people would not buy plastic bottles if tap water refills were freely available. Refill is a behaviour change campaign and mobile app designed to make it easier for people to live with less plastic by connecting them to places where they can eat, drink and shop without “pointless packaging.” With more than 30,000 places offering free drinking water globally, over 300,000 app downloads and 100 million pieces of plastic avoided to date, Refill has proven that it is possible to create a wave of change using a clever combination of technology and communications.

Swachhata: the citizen dashboard

Next to raising public awareness, civic participation can be incredibly effective in changing the way that plastic is viewed, used and managed as waste. This is the idea behind Swachhata, a platform designed to foster large-scale cooperation between Indian citizens and municipal waste organisations. Through the portal, individuals are able to identify a cleanliness-related issue (like an overflowing garbage dump), pinpoint the location and file a complaint. It automatically gets forwarded to municipal officers for action. Citizens get regular updates and notifications on the status of their complaint, and can also send comments or share further concerns. As of today, Swachhata is active in more than 4000 cities in India.

Evoware is an edible alternative

Another field in which designers can play a vital role, is in the creation and promotion of alternative materials that are non-toxic, biodegradable and regenerative. One great example is Evoware, a social enterprise making edible packaging from one of nature’s most renewable resources: seaweed. Evoware’s mission is to innovate more biodegradable materials, while increasing the livelihood of seaweed farmers in Indonesia. Their disposable seaweed sachets are meant to replace the thousands of single-use plastic sachets that are sold every day in the country, in the form of condiments and soaps. It has the same function as conventional plastic packaging but is 100% dissolvable in warm water.

Bite, brush, smile, repeat

Did you know that one billion toothpaste tubes are thrown out each year? Most end up in landfill, because they are usually small in size, made of blended materials and smeared with leftover toothpaste—all of which makes recycling almost impossible. Offering up a new, cleaner model, Bite makes oral care tablets that are 100% vegan, cruelty-free, and which come in refillable glass jars. Just bite down on one tablet before you brush, and the mint-like pellet acts in the same way that conventional toothpaste does, minus the wasteful packaging. 

Kabadiwalla Connect

Downstream, problems with waste disposal and collection are often shaped by matters of governance, access and infrastructure. This is why any initiative dealing with plastic waste at the end of the line must be mindful of local cultures, challenges and opportunities. How can we make sure that all waste is managed, processed and valued in a way that’s sustainable as well as fair? Based in Chennai, India’s fourth-largest urban hub, Kabadiwalla Connect is venturing an impressive answer. This start-up works with informal waste-pickers to offer decentralized waste management solutions in developing cities across the Global South. Using IoT based technology, they help leverage (and empower) a city’s existing informal waste infrastructure in the processing of post-consumer plastic, glass and metals. They collect data, create maps, and organise programmes, helping to track material flows, increase recycling rates, and connect ragpickers with scrap-shops and local residents.

A market for oceanworks

Last but not least, we want to shout-out a simple yet necessary project tackling plastic waste in our oceans. We know that to end plastic pollution in the long run, we have to invest in ideas that prevent its production in the first place. But there are also remedial solutions needed now, that include collecting the plastic debris that already exists in nature, and converting it into versatile, consumer-friendly products. Oceanworks is one such enterprise. It is a global marketplace and a sourcing platform for recycled ocean plastic resins, yarn, materials, and products. They work with collectors, processors, and manufacturers to guarantee the origins of ocean plastic, then test and document what materials are being harvested and how they were collected. In 2020, they launched a successful line of recycled plastic buttons made from marine litter gathered in Central America. By providing appealing, economically viable recycled products in bulk, Oceanworks helps to protect our shorelines while reducing demand for new virgin plastic.

Top image: Evoware.

For more inspiring stories like this, follow the No Waste Challenge, a global competition presented by What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation. Innovators from around the world are invited to submit creative solutions to reduce waste and rethink our entire production and consumption cycle. The deadline for submissions is 20 April 2021.