With Earth Day 2024’s spotlight on eliminating non-regenerative plastics, new plastics alternatives and reinventions created by innovative student teams from the Wege Prize international design competition offer the promise of game-changing solutions to plastics pollution.

This year alone, students of the decade-plus renowned competition for restorative design have been recognized for their work on real-world, sustainable options to plastics, such as compostable sanitary pads made of banana peels instead of plastic, cassava peels transformed into bioplastic grocery and seedling sacks, post-harvest crop waste converted into biodegradable packaging and medical plastics regenerated as recyclable alternatives.

Hosted annually by Michigan’s Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, the noted global design competition, now in its second decade, has helped advance pioneering concepts that can support the future circular economy. From waste and inefficiencies associated with plastics to hunger, pollution, poverty, natural resources, technologies and fashion, Wege Prize teams have addressed a wide range of global challenges. To date, more than 765 Wege Prize participants from 47 countries and 223 academic institutions have devised real-world concepts to the world’s “wicked problems.” So far, the contest’s winning five-person teams have earned more than $400,000 in total cash awards, helping further a circular economy among the multidisciplinary, cultural and institutional participants.

Hya Bioplastics Presentation

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

Huuzagro, a 2024 team that is addressing plastic pollution in Rwanda by transforming food waste into biodegradable packaging, is among the Wege Prize’s top five finalist groups from a record-breaking 290 university students worldwide in 58 five-person teams and will compete for a total cash prize purse of $65,000. A semifinalist team in the 2023 Wege Prize, Huuzagro’s return in 2024 builds on solutions to plastics pollution from previous Wege Prize teams, beginning in the competition’s first year – that was when Wicked Solutions took second place in 2014 for its Bags to Bag project involving producing and using polylactic acid bags made from plants and sustainable materials instead of plastic.

Other game-changing innovations in plastics reinvention from Wege Prize teams include Rethread from 2024 and 2023 that’s creating biodegradable textiles from agricultural waste to reduce environmental impact and reduce the fashion industry’s reliance on petroleum-based textiles, Hya Bioplastics’ design to replace petroleum-derived disposable packaging with biodegradable ones used the invasive water hyacinth and Further Food’s selection of compostable packaging for “on the go meals,” the latter two teams both from 2020.

Among the Wege Prize’s other plastics disrupters are Wet Technik, who addressed environmental pollution from hazardous wastewater by incorporating waste bottle caps as part of its overall solution in 2019, including obtaining 50,000 waste plastic bottle caps from plastic collectors in Kampala. Also, SPAAK - The Holistic Hospital created bioplastics made of potato starch in its 2016 solution to better handle wastewater and use less petroleum-based plastics, including single-use hospital materials. Pixelation, a 2015 team, incorporated sustainable systems in its solution by taking on food packaging waste through a circular food delivery and waste pickup program that leveraged reusable packaging to be cleaned, sorted and used again.

Hya Bioplastics Harvesting Water Hyacinth

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

“The student teams’ multidisciplinary approach to challenges in plastics pollution, along with agricultural, human and environmental discards, ignite meaningful solutions to complex problems,” said Gayle DeBruyn, KCAD professor, Wege Prize leader and the U.S. Green Building Council of West Michigan’s 2023 Legacy Award Winner for her critical work as a leader for a sustainable future. “Their sound innovations to how products are made and services are provided puts the spotlight on a regenerative circular economy and moves us away from a linear economy’s take, make and dispose of practices.”

More details about the 2024 Wege Prize and its finalist teams will be revealed in the coming weeks at wegeprize.org.