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Let's fundamentally rethink the way we make, use and re-use plastics so that they don’t become waste in the first place.


Love them or hate them, plastics are everywhere around us. 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% is recycled, resulting in a loss of USD 80-120 billion per year to the global economy. 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.


As part of the New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, the Circular Design Challenge asks the question: 

How might we get products to people without generating plastic waste?

The Circular Design Challenge seeks 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 include 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. 

Small-format packaging items like sachets, wrappers, straws, lids or tear-offs make up 10% of all plastic packaging, but they are the hardest to recycle. Their design makes them prone to escape collection systems and end up in the environment, causing widespread damage across the globe. Even when collected, their small format means they have a low value, which means that they become turned into new materials. 

This can be witnessed in emerging markets where small-format packaging items are unlikely to be picked up by the informal sector. And even if sometimes collected in more automated systems, their small size means that these items often get filtered out and end up in landfill, where they are still prone to leak into the environment, or get incinerated.

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. 

See our Use Cases & Personas for an in depth overview of the Challenge scope.

We are eager to see radical conversations and unexpected collaborations emerge from this effort. Opening this topic to a global community with a variety of experiences, cultural backgrounds, and areas of expertise holds rich learning opportunities and the potential for real and lasting impact. 


The Circular Design Challenge calls for new designs that avoid the generation of small-format plastic packaging waste. Since the number of applications using small-format packaging is vast, we challenge our participants to design solutions around three iconic Use Cases.

A solution could target one or several of these use cases, and could for example work by eliminating the need for small-format packaging that cannot be recycled, or where redesigned formats enable packaging that is economically viable for recycling and not prone to escape into the environment. Some possible conceptual angles could be:

  • Delivery formats – for inspiration, consider for example the invention of the stay-on tab for aluminium cans in the 1970’s. Eliminating the sharp-edged and wasteful pull-off tab, this redesigned the total recyclability without fundamentally changing the drinking experience. 
  • Delivery and business models – for inspiration, consider for example how the Splosh! refill model changes all aspects of the supply chain.

Solutions that are not in Scope 

For this Challenge, the following solutions are not in scope:

  • Strictly end-of-pipe solutions such as novel collection systems, unless they are an integral part of a redesigned format/delivery model/system
  • Re-design of large packaging items or other packaging that is already widely recycled (even though in some regions still with low recycling rates, such as beverage bottles)


Submitted ideas to the Circular Design Challenge will be evaluated by an experienced Judging Panel according to the following criteria:

  • Circular economy for plastics: Does the proposed solution enable the elimination of non-recyclable small-format plastics waste? 
  • Innovative: Is the idea new and unique?
  • Human Centered: Is the idea poised to make life easier for users?
  • Scalable: How well could the idea be accelerated and scaled up? 
  • Regionally relevant: Does the idea solve a real local problem on the ground?

For a full description please see our Evaluation Criteria page. 


The Circular Design Challenge, led by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation and hosted by OpenIDEO, is calling upon a global community to submit ideas, innovations, and new technologies with the potential to transform the plastics economy. 

At OpenIDEO, we believe that new and existing ideas become better through transparent feedback and collaboration. We encourage building off of others' ideas and the combining of ideas to reach innovative new places.

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.


We hope to see a broad range of innovators participate in the Circular Design Challenge, ranging from students and social entrepreneurs to seasoned inventors, design teams, startups and SMEs. The Challenge is open to all individuals over the age of 18 and to all validly formed legal entities. No fee is required to participate in the Challenge. 

Certain restrictions apply. Please see the Terms and Conditions for further details.


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. The program provides customised mentorship by industry experts on topics ranging from specific guidance on industry needs and requirements, to relevant science, business basics, global IP protection, strategic partnerships, investor strategies, CEO experience, and others. Participants in the Accelerator Phase can expect:

  • access to innovation labs for testing of viability and scalability, and guidance support as needed
  • the opportunity to present their idea at 2 widely publicized events, in front of a crowd of potential customers, business partners and investors
  • receiving amplifying media exposure in both media and on social media platforms.


Your participation in the Challenge is subject to all applicable laws and regulations in your country and state of residence or incorporation (as the case may be). You are responsible for checking these laws and regulations that are applicable to you before participating in the  Challenge to make sure you are legally allowed to participate. You are also responsible for following your employer's policies (if relevant) regarding your participation in the Challenge, for any taxes due, and for any reporting obligations related to any award you may receive as part of the Challenge. 

If you're concerned about IP associated with your idea, be advised to only share what you are comfortable with other people participating in Challenge seeing and possibly using. Anything you share is open to the public for use. If you can tell us about the thinking behind your idea, the stage of your idea, and the impact you've seen so far, we'll have a sense of whether it's in line with our topic and goals.

Anything you share on OpenIDEO is covered by the Challenge Terms and Conditions – please ensure that you read these terms prior to posting any ideas and feel free to contact us at [] if you have questions specific to your idea.



The New Plastics Economy is an ambitious, three-year initiative to build momentum towards a plastics system that works. Applying the principles of the circular economy, it brings together key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastics, starting with packaging. The initiative is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in collaboration with a broad group of leading companies, cities, philanthropists, policymakers, academics, students, NGOs, and citizens.

The initiative is supported by Wendy Schmidt as Lead Philanthropic Partner, and MAVA Foundation, Oak Foundation, and players of People’s Postcode Lottery (GB) as Philanthropic Funders. Amcor, The Coca-Cola Company, Danone, MARS, Novamont, PepsiCo, Unilever, and Veolia are the initiative’s Core Partners.


The Ellen MacArthur Foundation was created in 2010 to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. The Foundation works across five areas: insight and analysis, business and government, education and training, systemic initiatives, and communication. The Foundation works to quantify the economic opportunity of a circular model and to develop approaches for capturing its value, collaborating with partners to build capacity, explore collaboration opportunities, and to develop circular business initiatives. By establishing platforms such as the New Plastics Economy initiative, the Foundation works to transform key material flows, applying a global, cross-sectoral, cross value chain approach that aims to effect systems change. | @circulareconomy


The Prince of Wales's International Sustainability Unit (ISU) was formed in 2010 to address critical challenges to development and the environment. The ISU builds on the success of The Prince’s Rainforests Project, established to help find a solution to tropical deforestation. With an international reputation for neutral convening, underpinned by rigorous analysis, the ISU engages key actors from Governments, the private sector, research communities and civil society to catalyze positive change across the global sustainability agenda.  

The ISU's Marine Programme focuses on the global transition to a sustainable Blue Economy.  The core components of this work include fish stock recovery, coral reef health and marine plastic pollution.  During the last six years the ISU has brought together stakeholders from all sectors to accelerate solutions to some of the most pressing ocean-related challenges and build consensus on solutions for and a pathway towards a sustainable Blue Economy.


Wendy Schmidt is President of The Schmidt Family Foundation, where she works to advance the development of renewable energy and the wiser use of natural resources. The Foundation houses its grant-making operation in The 11th Hour Project, which supports more than 150 non-profit organizations around the world in program areas including renewable energy, ecological agriculture, human rights, and our maritime connection through its 11th Hour Racing program. In 2009, Wendy Schmidt and her husband, Eric Schmidt, created the Schmidt Ocean Institute (SOI), and in 2012 launched the research vessel, Falkor, as a mobile platform to advance ocean exploration, discovery, and knowledge, and catalyze the sharing of information about the oceans. Since 2012, Falkor has hosted more than 500 scientists from 27 countries.

To further her commitment to ocean issues, in 2010 Wendy Schmidt partnered with XPRIZE, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, to sponsor the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup XCHALLENGE, a $1.4 million competition designed to identify efficient and innovative solutions to clean up surface oil spills.  Wendy Schmidt once again partnered with XPRIZE in 2012 to design the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, a $2 million purse, awarded in July, 2015, where competitors responded to the global need for accurate and available sensors to more broadly measure the signs of ocean acidification, one of the harbingers of climate change.

Wendy Schmidt is the Lead Philanthropic Partner of the New Plastics Economy Initiative, which is led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Wendy earned an M.J. in Journalism from The University of California at Berkeley, and a B.A. magna cum laude from Smith College.

Follow Wendy on Twitter: @wenschmidt

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