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With the UK Plastic Packaging Tax coming into full force and 45% of UK consumers prioritizing recyclable materials in their beauty products, it’s evident that plastic packaging needs an alternative—stat. The cosmetics industry produces 120 billion units of packaging every year, while the fashion industry alone employs 180 billion thin-film plastic polybags annually. Thin-film plastic also constitutes roughly 46% of the 14 million metric tons of plastic entering oceans every year. That annual figure is expected to reach 29 million metric tons by 2040, making the need for more eco-friendly alternatives all the more urgent.

Tom Ford, in collaboration with anti-plastic pollution nonprofit Lonely Whale, is hoping to accelerate a resolution with the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize. Launched in 2020, it’s the only competition of its kind worldwide which focuses on biodegradable and scalable solutions to thin-film plastic polybags.

This year sees eight finalists step to the forefront in the fight against packaging waste, with enterprises creating materials from alternatives such as bacteria (Genecis), seaweed (Kelpi, Sway, Notpla), algae (Marea), and peas (Xampla). The initiatives stem from regions ranging from India (Zerocircle) to Kenya (Lwanda Biotech).

Each company will have a 12-month-long material testing phase, sponsored by Nike, to ensure the environmental efficacy of their products in order to render them market ready by 2025. Measures will include in-lab as well as field testing in the Caribbean and Pacific Northwest waters, led by the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute and Seattle Aquarium. The latter has also developed a groundbreaking lab test that recreates the digestive process of a marine mammal gut in order to assess the risks of ingesting the materials on aquatic animal life—another important facet when it comes to plastic waste given that plastic ingestion is fatal for 25% of whales, and as of 2020, more than 900 marine species have ingested it or been entangled in plastic.

Brands including Tom Ford Beauty, Stella McCartney, and Nike will also trial the materials to replace their existing stock of polybags. “The impact these brilliant minds and their creations will have on our planet is monumental, bringing us their innovative solutions to making the environment a safer place for generations to come,” Ford comments. “What we accomplish together through this competition will catalyze global change across continents, countries and industries, which is urgently needed to address plastic pollution.” Dr. Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale, adds: “The ambition of this prize is unparalleled, and is poised to claim the largest commercial shift away from non-recyclable thin-film plastic. We’ve long believed that the solutions to the plastic waste crisis exist, and by working together we can ensure a future free from plastic in the ocean.”

The winner, announced in spring 2023, will receive over $1.2 million in funds, as well as support from the likes of Lonely Whale to aid in market adoption.

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