From agricultural waste and discarded clothing to plastics pollution and hunger, new and impactful solutions are turning these critical challenges into new products and resources, thanks to 15 student teams from around the world competing for cash prizes in the 10th year of Wege Prize.

The promising, real-world ideas for the future circular economy include making solar cells out of plastic garbage, recycling food waste from restaurants and farms as new fertilizers, creating faux leather from banana peels and solving malnutrition by reviving appreciation for indigenous African vegetables. Other competitors will debut new cellulose-based plastic wrap, lumber from recycled pulp, scrap-metal solar concentrators and cooking fuel briquettes made from farm waste.

Poised to make a real difference in sustainability, these talented student teams are also adding to the proven impact of Wege Prize, the competition organized by Michigan’s Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University. Known as the international student design competition that fosters circular solutions to today’s “wicked problems,” Wege Prize has been acclaimed widely for “present[ing] a chance for young people to take charge of their lives by being creative, innovative and resourceful,” said The Guardian.

This year, the competition’s judges selected the 15 semifinalists from an initial pool of 65 competing teams, with the selected ideas advancing to the competition’s third phase. Each team is using extensive feedback from the competition’s diverse expert judges to refine their ingenious initiatives, such as turning crop residue into a biodegradable fabric that can be manufactured and marketed in the real world.

Details on all the semifinalist team projects follow below.

“It is rewarding to see students from around the world come together to develop meaningful solutions to knotty problems,” said Gayle DeBruyn, KCAD professor and Wege Prize leader. “Their ingenious, multifaceted approaches move us closer to a more fully circular economy that disrupts the make, take and toss cycle of a linear economy.”

New judges for Wege Prize in 2023 are Deonna Anderson, editorial director of Next City, who has previously interviewed students from the finalist teams, and B. K. (Braj) Singh, a former professor in soil science and plant nutrition at EARTH University. Returning judges include design pioneer Tom Newhouse and sustainable business expert Bill Stough.

“Wicked problems are those that have innumerable causes, are hard to describe and do not have seamless solutions,” Anderson wrote last year in sustainability journal GreenBiz, citing the Harvard Business Review’s examples of environmental degradation, terrorism and poverty. “Solving wicked problems is the challenge for the Wege Prize.”

Wege Prize 2023 Banana Leather Phase 2 - Students Using Banofi Notebooks

Photo courtesy of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

About Wege Prize

Established in 2013 to ignite game-changing solutions for these most complex, layered problems that point to our future of a more regenerative, circular economy, Wege Prize requires teams work across disciplines, to apply design thinking and to conceive new ideas that can be implemented practically and widely.

“KCAD’s multifaceted platform provides a powerful opportunity for college and university students worldwide to develop actionable solutions that go beyond the competition to real-world use,” said DeBruyn, who won the 2022 Van Andel Leadership Award from the Grand Rapids Public Museum and led Wege Prize to win five years of grant funding in 2021. That funding has allowed KCAD to execute a growth plan including a prize purse of $65,000, a doubled pool of judges and extensions of Wege Prize to serve more students and communities, including Wege Prize High School | Collaborative Studio, now in its second year.

Wege Prize 2023 Green Poultry Farm Phase 2 - Team Members At Innovation Fair

Photo courtesy of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

Changing the World, One Idea at a Time

Past editions of Wege Prize have debuted successful teams invited to prestigious business incubators and gaining wider recognition and seed funding for their initiatives. One of the Wege Prize students spoke at the international climate summit, COP27, and the team Rutopia’s eco-sensitive tourism solution has been covered by top editors at Forbes and later won the $1 million Hult Prize. Another Wege Prize team, Hya Bioplastics, advanced its disposable food packaging ideas to a prominent incubator, advancing their business.

For 2023, the new teams and game-changing ideas are reaching new heights. The 15 teams accepted into the next phase of competition include:

  • Agri ThinkTank is using food waste to make eco-friendly compost and livestock feeds using black soldier flies, helping farmers access products that maximize agricultural production, reduce environmental contamination and improve their living standards.
  • Banana Leather is producing plant leather comparable in quality to animal hide in performance by using banana crop waste for a vegan, cruelty-free, sustainable and circular product.
  • BioEase is using waste products to make biogas more accessible to people in Rwanda by redesigning the biogas digester to be more affordable, effective, efficient and low maintenance.
  • Cellucoat is accelerating the transition into a circular economy by developing a sustainable, biodegradable and customizable bacterial cellulose-based plastic alternative suitable for food packaging and prolonging shelf life.
  • Counter Plas Tech is manufacturing weather-resistant engineered wood processed from the polymer of plastic waste materials and biomass wasted during primary and tertiary timber processing.

Wege Prize 2023 Counter Plas Tech Phase 2- Prototype

Photo courtesy of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

  • Crown Multiverse is using agricultural waste to make safe, affordable and environmentally sound briquettes for cooking fuel to reduce consumption of wood-based counterparts that contribute to deforestation.
  • Green Poultry Farm is developing a biodigester system for poultry production and feed growth by converting poultry waste, through anaerobic digestion, into biogas and biofertilizers, reducing pollutants.
  • Gsolaire is investing in the deployment of solar concentrators made from scrap metal to replace carbon-emitting energy sources with clean and affordable solar thermal power.
  • Huuzagro is reducing plastic pollution by converting food waste from restaurants, food processing plants and households into biodegradable plastic packaging material.
  • Kenda is solving malnutrition in Kenyan communities by reviving the cultivation and consumption of African Indigenous Vegetables for their high nutritional value.

Photo courtesy of Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University

  • Muddy Treasure is using anaerobic digestion to process sewage sludge and organic waste from meat industries, restaurants, schools and different agriculture activities into an organic substrate and liquid fertilizer, plus an animal feed supplement.
  • Rethread is turning crop residue into a biodegradable fabric, reducing water usage, CO2 emissions and eutrophication while supporting smallholder farmers in Africa and providing creative opportunities in fashion.
  • Team Green Energy is reducing plastic pollution by collecting plastic wastes, especially those with high carbon content, and upcycling them into 3D graphene nanosheets for highly efficient HTM-free perovskite solar to be used as a renewable energy supplier.
  • Team Purple is preventing clothes and fabrics waste through incentive-based upcycling that exchanges cloth for money, encourages clothes donations and discourages cloth-dumping in rivers and canals.
  • UnwasteWater is reducing wastewater by utilizing microbial electrosynthesis to sustainably synthesize valuable carbon-negative chemicals from domestic wastewater that can be used in the pharmaceutical, biomedical and chemical industries.

Thanks to the continuing financial support of The Wege Foundation, Wege Prize 2023 has opened these unique opportunities for undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students around the world and has helped advance the ideas and solutions behind the circular economy.