A shopper uses MIWA (MInimumWAste), a technology and processing system which enables the transport, sale and purchase of goods while minimizing packaging and food waste. The MIWA system’s distinctiveness lies in its complexity as it covers all members of the supply chain from producers to consumers.

Designing Circular Solutions for the Global Plastic Waste Problem

Convening diverse stakeholders to keep plastics in the economy and out of the ocean with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation

In partnership with

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

The Challenge

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

The Outcome

A global rethink of how we use plastics and packaging across markets and geographies, and a group of 16 winners with the funding and support to keep their ideas going.

Demand for plastics is projected to double over the next 20 years, and if consumption habits and production processes don’t change, there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean by 2050. If we want to free our ocean from plastics, we have to do more than just cleaning up beaches or removing plastic from the ocean. That’s why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation  partnered with OpenIDEO to create the $1 million Circular Design Challenge, inviting designers from across the world to rethink the way we make, use, and reuse plastics so they don’t become waste in the first place.

In a circular economy, the final destination of a product isn’t a landfill or incineration. The products are designed to be used and reused at their highest economic potential for as long as possible within the global supply chain. Creating system-wide change in the design and use of a ubiquitous material like plastics requires a diverse set of partners—companies like PepsiCo, Nestle, Veolia, and British retailer Marks & Spencer, as well as plastics manufacturers, recycling experts, and smaller-scale entrepreneurs and individuals from all over the world participated in shaping and judging this innovation Challenge.

Sadam Matsawili, founder of Nsheke Straws—a Top Idea in this Challenge—conducts design research interviews with potential users. Nsheke Straws are locally-produced drinking straws made of the Nsheke plant, a plastic alternative.

Enrolling business leaders in the Challenge in this way was essential to ensure that solutions crafted by participants were rooted in and considerate of business realities. When entrepreneurs and innovators can design within existing constraints while also pushing the boundaries and looking ahead to the future, a more holistic solution is likely to emerge. As Mike Barry, managing director of Marks & Spencer said, 

“No business, however large, can create a circular future alone. The Challenge has shown the power of collaboration. It’s also shown how we need to innovate and create new solutions to today’s problems.”

To do this, we need better materials, clever product designs, and new, circular business models. That’s why the Ellen MacArthur Foundation partnered with OpenIDEO to create the $1 million Circular Design Challenge—inviting designers from across the world to rethink the way we make, use, and reuse plastics so they don’t become waste in the first place.


Rather than only addressing down-stream recycling issues, redesigning how such products are delivered to people without creating waste creates a system where the onus isn’t on consumers to shoulder all the responsibility for recycling. Instead, designers and corporations must create packaging and delivery models that don’t create unrecyclable plastics waste.

The passion for the topic of plastics was evident from the 619 idea submissions, many of which came from designers not previously experienced in the field.

To engage and support teams and groups from developing economies, members of the OpenIDEO community hosted more than 65 events in 22 countries. OpenIDEO chapters in Detroit, Boston, Nairobi, New Delhi and Shanghai received $2,000 flash grants to create tailored, in-depth events.  

Enrolling innovators from diverse backgrounds in this event series was particularly important, as they were able to provide specific insights about their regions. The Nairobi Chapter, for example, organized a design walk that traced the path of plastics consumption. “By following the trail of plastics from usage all the way to the landfill, the community was changed. It provoked them to see plastics in so many forms and uses where it was previously always unnoticed,” said Wekesa Zablon, Nairobi Chapter Organizer. In total, events like this led to 85 idea submissions to the Challenge.

‍Community members from around the world participate in a global ideation series, designing solutions for the Challenge. Members of the OpenIDEO community hosted more than 65 events in 22 countries.

For the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the broad interest from designers was a key success factor. “It is encouraging to see so many designers passionately engaging in trying to solve the systemic problem of the linear plastics economy”, said Mats Linder, who leads the New Plastics Economy innovation program at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “Redesigning how we use plastics so that they never become waste which we cannot reuse or recycle is a complex and difficult problem. The Circular Design Challenge showed how importance to continue to work on this problem—we’re not done yet. We hope that people who used the Challenge as a way of getting involved with plastics—locally or globally—will continue to develop their ideas. Because we need them.”

For OpenIDEO, the heart of the Challenge was bringing this diverse group of innovators together, and engineering ways to support different teams, based on their resources and level of technical experience. Those efforts included creating, together with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a cohort of leading experts from business, academia and the NGO community to serve as mentors, as well as a group of expert prototypers who helped less- experienced teams push their ideas forward.

‍EVOWARE replaces conventional small-format plastic packaging with edible and biodegradable sachets and wraps, made directly from sustainably sourced seaweed as main material. Image from EVOWARE Bioplastic.

At the conclusion of the Challenge, winning teams were invited to attend the Our Oceans Conference, where European Commissioner of the Environment Karmenu Vella awarded them a portion of the $1 million total prize in front of an audience of leading global dignitaries, governments, and influencers. 

The 16 winning ideas included Algramo, a Chilean team that created vending machines that distribute staples like rice, beans, and sugar, which can be purchased in small quantities and carried in reusable containers; MIWA, a team out of the Czech Republic that created an app that allows users to order specific quantities of goods that come in reusable packaging; and Evoware, and startup from Indonesia that makes edible, biodegradable packaging from seaweed.

To keep the momentum of the Challenge going, the winners will now spend a year in a custom accelerator program designed to help push their ideas forward. Teams will receive ongoing mentorship from experts, scientists, and corporate partners, and will eventually have the opportunity to continue fundraising in a series of pitch events to an audience of high-level investors. David Christian, co-founder of Evoware, said:

“We are excited about the programme because it provides a lot of the support we need to scale up our business. It enables us to meet outstanding mentors and widen our network.”
About This Challenge

The Circular Design Challenge is one half of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Innovation Prize, and was launched in collaboration with the Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, and funded by Wendy Schmidt, Lead Philanthropic Partner of the New Plastics Economy initiative. To learn more, dive in to the Circular Design Guide, a hands-on resource created in collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO.

In The Press

'Instead Of Throwing Out This Plastic Wrapper, You Eat It' featured in Fast Company