Hacking Plastics

Have you ever gotten take out food and after eating it looked down at the single use plastic packaging only to have the feeling of satisfaction be tarred by a tinge of guilt?

If you’re anything like the crowd that met at Imperial College on Saturday February 9th, the answer is a resounding yes (often preceded by a groan). The first plastics hackathon was unlike any hackathon I had participated in before. With innovation and interdisciplinary action at its core, this event was focused on bringing together people from different walks of life to find profitablesolutions to solve the plastics problem. This word, profitable, is important, because while it would be much easier to wait around for a top-down policy-led solution to the plastics problem, that might be a while. And though the flaws of our economic system are many (read: they got us into this mess), in the short term it makes sense to find ways we can innovate within them in order to make change happen.

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So what did this mean in practice? Like any good design-led exercise, there was a brief (how might we reduce single use plastics focusing on reuse and refill?), there were focus themes, design canvases, and lots of post its. Again, like most design-led exercises, we had to fight the urge to ideate right away (not always successfully) and instead spent some time understanding the system that we were up against, hoping to find insights and opportunities for innovation. I was lucky to be in a dream team which included interior and product designers, management consultants, entrepreneurs, industry experts and a high school student. Along the way they taught me that many of the sandwiches sold for takeout in the UK come from overseas, meaning their carbon footprint is much greater than just the waste created from single use packaging. I also learned that speed and convenience are key for many of the retailers selling takeout food during busy times, so having things pre-packaged is an important business priority. Finally, I learned that this was a really hard problem, that touched culture and behaviour, which are notoriously difficult to change.

We talked a lot and ideated individually. Those got shared and we picked our favourite idea: a combination of keep cup logic and tiffin cleaning service that would change culture and relieve the oceans of some plastic. Ambitious? Yes. So much that we spent almost an hour defining a user journey before it was suddenly 6pm and we only had 45 minutes to put together the pitch deck! Then my team taught me was what 10 humans with 4 computers and a shared passion can do in under an hour. With minutes to go the pitch deck came together and Tupper Club was born! And it made sense — at least enough for us to get a runner up placement from the judges.

Stay tuned to see where this idea goes, but one thing that has already been accomplished is the understanding that there is a willingness for action and that industry sees the problem and wants to innovate. Indeed, having partners like Just Eats, M&S, and Pret present highlights how important it is to find innovations and solutions to the single use plastics problem.