Love them or hate them, plastics are everywhere. They protect our food, make our cars lighter and hospitals would not run without them. In fact plastics are so useful, their demand is expected to double in the next 20 years. Yet our plastics system is broken. Only 14% of plastics are recycled, resulting in a loss of $80-120 US billion per year to the global economy. And did you know that most plastic items are used only once before being discarded?

If nothing changes, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050.

So, how do we fix this? If we want to free our ocean from plastics, we have to fundamentally rethink the way we make, use and re-use plastics so that they don’t become waste in the first place.

The Circular Design Challenge seeks to inspire creatives to design solutions for plastics packaging to stay in the economy, and out of the environment.

Led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and hosted by OpenIDEO, the Challenge is calling upon a global community to submit ideas, innovations, and new technologies with the potential to transform the plastics economy.

As part of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, the Circular Design Challenge asks the question: How might we get products to people without creating plastic waste?

The goal of the Challenge is to catalyse innovation and help to advance the development of new packaging formats and/or delivery models that can be alternatives to the ones used today. The Challenge targets small-format items – which make up 10% of all plastic packaging – and includes things like sauce and shampoo sachets, wrappers and tear-offs, straws, take-away coffee cup lids and bottle caps. These items generally don’t get recycled, either because they are so light and small they get filtered out in automated sorting processes, or because they are not worth the effort to be collected and sorted manually.

Winning ideas will be awarded a share of a $1 million prize. To challenge this status quo, the Circular Design Challenge aims to stimulate the development of design ideas that will bring us one step closer to creating a plastics system that works.

Participants are encouraged to collaboratively share data, stories and insights during the Research Phase, and post solutions and share prototypes during the Ideas Phase. The Ellen Macarthur Foundation, OpenIDEO, and an Advisory Panel of industry experts will create a shortlist of submitted ideas that will move on to the Refinement Phase. During the Refinement Phase all submissions are encouraged to continue progressing, while the shortlist represents the lightbulb and moonshot moments that are most active and aligned with our Evaluation Criteria. After an iterative Refinement phase, the Top Ideas from the Challenge will be announced – a set of solutions that represent innovation and impact in the topic area.

Knowing that successful innovations come in many shapes and forms, and need different kinds of support along their evolution, we wish to encourage ideas at multiple stages of development by awarding prizes in two categories. The Circular Design Challenge, as part of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, is funded by Wendy Schmidt.

Ideator’s Award: 

Early-Stage Ideas – $10,000  (up to ten awards of $10,000 each)

In this category, we look forward to award the best community driven, collaborative ideas developed on the platform. We anticipate Top Ideas to have demonstrated active collaboration with other participants throughout the duration of the Challenge. While being able to present a compelling case, the ideas are likely in an early stage and still have some ground to cover to larger scale prototyping or piloting. Winners will be selected by community driven evaluation in collaboration with experts from the judging panel.

Up to 10 winners (concepts) will be awarded $10,000 to support continued explorative innovation. Winners will also be invited to participate in a series of educational and inspirational seminars as part of the Accelerator Phase.

Future of Plastics Design Award (2 Levels):

Mid-Stage Ideas – $100,000 (up to three awards of $100,000 each)

Advanced Ideas – $200,000 (up to three awards of $200,000 each)

In this category, we expect to see more advanced ideas, developed by experienced teams or individuals, which have been exploring the Challenge issues for 12 months or more, and operate with a legal structure (e.g. LLC, partnership). The ideas have likely emerged prior to the start of the Challenge, or teams/individuals are able to quickly work to reach the next level of development during the Challenge. A significant amount of prototyping and some piloting has likely taken place before or during the Challenge, and the most advanced ideas have developed viable business models and begun to scale up operations.

The best ideas in this category will be evaluated by a judging panel of experts from business, academia, and key geographical regions. Up to 3 winners will be awarded $100,000 each, and up to 3 winners will be awarded $200,000 each, to support further development towards implementation of their ideas.

Winners in this category will be invited to participate in the New Plastics Economy Accelerator Program, a 12-month program specifically designed to advance their innovation.

Innovators are encouraged to read the Challenge Brief in full and become familiar with the Challenge Use Cases to guide submissions. Follow the Challenge on social media using #CircularDesign.


What is OpenIDEO? We partner with leading organizations to drive collaboration, innovation and impact around the world’s toughest problems, through launching challenges, programs and other tailored experiences.

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