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The Inertia

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest threats to our oceans. According to the International Union for Conservation, approximately 14 million tons of plastic makes its way into the ocean each year. Plastics pose a huge threat to marine life when aquatic organisms ingest or become entangled in the debris, oftentimes resulting in injury or death. Plastics also pose a threat to human health. As they work their way up the food chain, for the first time in history, a recent study found microplastics in human blood.

The focus of the Lonely Whale Foundation is to prevent plastic from entering the ocean. In partnership with fashion designer and film director Tom Ford, they launched the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize. The contest aims to create scalable and biologically degradable alternatives to thin-film plastic polybags. The total prize purse: $1.2 million.

“What we accomplish together through this competition will catalyze global change across continents, countries and industries, which is urgently needed to address plastic pollution,” says Ford. “If the ocean is polluted and in danger, then so is the planet and so are we. 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.”

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Each year, roughly 180 billion thin-film plastic polybags are used by the fashion industry. That accounts for approximately 46 percent of the 14-million tons of annual ocean plastic pollution. The problem resonates with surfers, unequivocally.

“It is very important to protect the health of our oceans,” John John Florence, who’s serving as a judge in the competition, told me. “I’m not sure how I can emphasize it more beyond saying that I believe it is one of the biggest environmental issues we face. Ideally, plastic alternatives lead to no more plastics in the ocean — that’s the big goal.”

Once participants submitted their prototypes, their submissions underwent rigorous review by the Scientific & Technical Advisory Board and the judging panel. After thorough consideration, eight finalists were chosen from the 64 applications based on the ingenuity and feasibility of their designs. 

The finalists include Genecis, which reprograms bacteria to make premium materials from low-value organic waste. Kelpi uses seaweed to create compostable, marine-safe, low-carbon bioplastic packaging. Lwanda Biotech addresses community-level plastic pollution and agricultural waste by developing alternatives to thin-film plastic packaging.

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Marea leverages local sustainable algae streams to create a replicable model for thin-film alternatives that are fully biodegradable. Sway offers seaweed-based, home-compostable replacements for thin-film plastic packaging, shooting to offer a carbon-negative material at scale. Xampla turns proteins from common plant sources into high-performance plastic-alternative materials. Finally, Zerocircle makes wildlife and ocean-safe packaging materials from locally cultivated seaweed and dissolves after use.

“The ambition of this Prize is unparalleled and is poised to claim the largest commercial shift away from non-recyclable thin-film plastic,” says Lonely Whale Foundation CEO Dr. Dune Ives. “We’ve long believed that the solutions to the plastic waste crisis exists, and by working together we can ensure a future free from plastic in the ocean.” 

Now that the finalists have been selected, they will begin a yearlong material testing phase to ensure that their materials are biologically degradable, minimize negative social and environmental impacts, meet industry performance standards, and are cost-competitive, scalable, and market-ready by 2025.

The testing program includes field testing in both Caribbean and Pacific Northwest waters as well laboratory testing led by the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia and the Seattle Aquarium. Additionally, the finalists’ materials are scheduled to be tested by several major brands to ensure the immediate replacement of non-recyclable polybags.  

“The ocean is a special place, so I feel a sense of responsibility to help address issues and take care of something that is so near and dear to me,” says Florence. “I’m only one person, and I might not be attacking the issues perfectly. But I’m learning each day and happy to be taking on the challenge with the TOM FORD Plastic Innovation Prize group. The fact that this contest is tackling plastics and ocean health is what makes me love it.”

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