Featured image for Seaweed Has its Eye on the Prize in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize

Seaweed Has its Eye on the Prize in the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 03/02/2023 | 7 Minute Read

What do fashion designer Stella McCartney, actor Don Cheadle, and the executive vice president of Mastercard have in common? Along with a few other carefully selected individuals, they’re all judges for a first-of-its-kind competition hosted by Tom Ford to develop a biodegradable alternative to plastic poly bags. 

When the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize (powered by the nonprofit Lonely Whale) put out a call for innovators, manufacturers, and scientists to develop sustainable alternatives to thin plastic packaging, sixty-four teams across twenty-six countries applied. If the finalists are any indication, we see a lot of seaweed in your future when it comes to plastic alternatives. Five out of eight of the finalists focus on seaweed-based materials, including Kelpi, Zerocircle, and Sway, an innovative materials lab we featured a couple of years ago. We checked in with Julia Marsh, CEO and co-founder of Sway, and her team to learn more about the competition and their progress since we last spoke in 2021.

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The magic of seaweed, according to Sway, is that using it as a plastic alternative can actually be regenerative to the ecosystem rather than destructive. Every step of the supply, seaweed uplifts the natural and human-built systems—from not requiring freshwater and pesticides to grow, combating ocean acidification, and providing employment opportunities. And then you get the final product: a thin film that’s a genuine contender for the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize.

“When they announced the prize, I think the entire Sway team's jaws dropped because the exact criteria of the prize maps onto what we're building at Sway perfectly,” Julia said. “The criteria that the prize looked at went beyond what a lot of these types of prizes do where they say, ‘Show us your cool animations.’ Instead, it was, ‘What does your supply chain look like? How are you actually going to scale the solution? How are you taking into account the environmental footprint of the process? Does it actually decompose?’ And now that we’re part of the finalist group, it includes testing to validate it.”

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The initial application process proved rigorous, and as finalists, the team behind the competition put the Sway material to the test. The judges will look at how the material degrades at home and in industrial compost environments as well as in marine and terrestrial litter scenarios, which are obviously not the preferred place for discarded packaging to end up, biodegradable or not—but is still very much a possibility in the real world.

“Our favorite test is one they do with the Seattle Aquarium, where they’ve simulated a whale’s gut to try and get a sense of what happens in that worst-case scenario which we see with marine litter all the time,” said Russell Reed, head of sustainability and impact at Sway. “That’s all been happening without us getting the data yet, but it’s a big part of the criteria.”

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“Let me assure you: no whales were harmed in this study,” said Emy Kane, managing director of Lonely Whale. “The Seattle Aquarium simulated a gray whale stomach in their Clean Seas Research Laboratory using heat, acid, digestive enzymes, and agitation in a beaker, mimicking the environment inside a whale gut. After the Finalists’ materials were exposed to the whale gut for twenty-four hours, Clean Seas Research Scientists tested how much disintegrated, how much energy it took to break down, and levels of BPA, among other metrics.”

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Emy also says that the rigorous testing (sponsored by Nike and conducted by the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia and the Seattle Aquarium) included in-lab testing and field tests in the Caribbean and Pacific Northwest waters. The Prize Scientific & Technical Advisory Board reviewed the data to assess each material's capabilities, examining if they’ll not only meet environmental standards but can also be scaled for market adoption.

Receiving the results from these various tests and evaluations will undoubtedly help guide Sway with their work in the future as they continue to perfect their material. But the competition also offered other benefits along the way.

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“Innovation partnership is such an important model for Sway,” said Alyssa Pace, communications lead at Sway. “We're thinking about that with our first round of customers, as we’re hoping to launch our product within the first half of this year. So it's an exciting time for Sway. We're looking at our product like it's on its way. The testing that we've done will prepare us for the reality of what launching to the world looks like.”

Julia added that the spirit of collaboration has always been critical to Sway’s operations. Despite what some may want to believe, innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The data from this competition could be helpful to everyone involved and could also inspire others who dream of designing a more sustainable future. Beyond that, the connections Sway has made by merely participating (not to mention the publicity and potential future assocciations) open up heaps of opportunities.

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“To any material company, I highly recommend becoming a part of these prizes or acceleration models because it gives you a team that's backing you up,” Julia said. “It commands the attention of really influential partners who can ultimately help you scale your material.”

Emy at Lonely Whale also emphasized the importance of collaboration as a catalyst for change. They specifically designed the Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize to model a method of radical collaboration across industry, scientific research, advocacy, and innovation.

“Competitions offer us a license to imagine a brighter future,” she added. “They’re public platforms that inspire and champion solutions.”

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Sway intends to launch their product publicly in the coming months, primarily with applications in the fashion industry. The team expressed their excitement at getting the packaging into consumers’ hands, with Alyssa mentioning that they have a growing following and an expanding network of people interested in their product. Additionally, as a result of the competition, they’ve partnerned with big-name fashion brands like Madewell and J. Crew. Russell credited this as an amazing opportunity to receive open and honest feedback, as well as refine what their customer relationship would look like as they enter the market. In turn, it’s given brands that desperately want to reduce their plastic use the chance to make an impact.

“It’s been incredible to partner with Sway as we explore how to shift away from virgin plastics in our packaging,” said Katie O’Hare, director of sustainability at J. Crew. Customers have expressed to J. Crew that plastic pollution is a huge concern, so the partnership lets the brand explore its options and work directly with Sway for what they need. “With packaging—and especially plastic films—it can be challenging to find new innovations that both have a positive environmental impact and protect our garments. Sway’s product is unique in that it can do both. We’re so grateful the Tom Ford Innovation Prize introduced us to this innovative company that has such passionate leadership, and have been delighted by the partnership so far.”

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The winner of the competition will be announced in March 2023, and while Sway would naturally love to earn this recognition, Julia also acknowledges how impactful merely participating and being a finalist has been. This opportunity has led to a plethora of other chances to showcase their story on a global stage, including at design festivals, climate events, and seaweed-centric events. The publicity from this prize has already given them immense promotion to share the story of seaweed.

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“Of the eight finalists, five are seaweed-based, including ours,” Julia said, “and that’s incredibly meaningful to us. When you’re a new materials company, there’s so much to educate folks on, and there’s so much newness. Showing the public that this is a new material they should be paying attention to, and showing brands that they should be excited about seaweed, is just incredibly heartening.”

Stay tuned to PlasticPrize.org to view the winner when they’re announced. And if you’re an innovator looking to learn more or a brand interested in trialing alternative solutions to traditional thin-film plastic, Lonely Whale would love to hear from you—reach them at info@plasticprize.org. 

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