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Hillenbrand, Net Impact, and Coca-Cola name finalists for 2024 Circular Plastics Challenge

A pile of squished plastic bottles
Participants were tasked with designing forward-thinking solutions to increase the supply of rPET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate. Pixabay

Hillenbrand, Net Impact, and The Coca-Cola Company have selected five finalists for the 2024 Circular Plastics Challenge. The challenge was established to promote sustainability within the plastics value chain and encourage ideas on ways to help keep plastics in the economy and out of the environment.

Participants were tasked with designing forward-thinking solutions to increase the supply of rPET, or recycled polyethylene terephthalate. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is a material used for food, beverage, cosmetic, and household product packaging. Focusing on turning PET into rPET helps create a more circular economy by using plastic that has already been produced and helps solve the current supply challenges with rPET as it is not keeping pace with demand due to low recycling rates.

The second-annual global challenge generated 65 applications from 18 countries.

The 2024 Circular Plastics Challenge finalists include:

Project ReVend led by Addison Vaughn and Anastasia Chalmers, University of South Carolina undergraduates, Columbia, S.C., U.S. Project ReVend aims to boost recycling rates by alleviating sortation challenges with a subliminal label design. It also seeks to incentivize consumers to recycle through reverse vending machines that are integrated with the preferred payment accounts. With the solution implemented at a U.S.-based university with an undergraduate student population of 35,000, a 10 percent adoption rate is projected to lead to 210,000 collected bottles per year.

rMarket led by Carissa Tasto and Jennifer Larkin, MBA graduates from Presidio Graduate School, San Anselmo, California, U.S. rMarket is a full-service platform offering retail chains the option of becoming a certified recycling centre under the rMarket program while supporting logistics for reclaimers, processors, and copackers manufacturing rPET. The goal of rMarket is to provide the equipment, marketplace, and industry expertise to transform a retail store into a centralized collection point for communities underserved by municipal recycling programs. At scale, it has the potential to provide enough material for 2,652,864 soda bottles made with 30 percent rPET.

EcoTrace led by Professionals Aadhithya Sujith and Somya Singh, Kannur, Kerala & Nagpur, Maharashtra, India. EcoTrace uses florescent-based markers in PET plastic manufacturing coupled with tracer-based sorting (TBS) technology to improve the material's recyclability and downstream applications. The zero-waste process is designed to minimize tonnage loss, conserving valuable resources and reducing the carbon footprint associated with plastic production and recycling. With an estimated 1 billion pounds of rPET recovery facilitated by TBS, the potential for mitigating plastic waste is substantial.

Strong Bottle led by Terra Miller-Cassman and Taylor Fackrell, Boise State University graduate students, Boise, Idaho, U.S. Single-use water bottles are made of rPET, yet most PET bottles are landfilled because they are mistaken for paper during the recycling process when the rPET bottle gets flattened by the pressurized air-sorting technology common in materials recovery facilities. Strong Bottle proposes a new disposable water bottle shape to prevent flattening during the recycling process that could result in a 15 percent increase in the PET collected during the recycling process.

BottleBot led by Nicole Restani Kolbeck and Sebastian Weeks, Bard's Graduate Program and professional Nate Kolbeck, Red Hook, N.Y., U.S. BottleBot is a deposit return scheme that collects PET bottles and distributes rewards for consumers through an interactive reverse vending machine co-sponsored by large brands with established recycled content goals. It incorporates AI scanning that reduces contamination and blockchain technology that allows retailers to track and manage PET supply throughout the plastics value chain. This solution is estimated to increase the supply of rPET by 10,000 pounds per store, per year within the first year.

Each team will present their ideas during a virtual showcase during NPE2024. The judging panel, which includes leaders from Hillenbrand, Coca-Cola, and The Recycling Partnership, will determine the winners during the show. The first-place team will be awarded $10,000, with $2,500 and $1,000 going to the second- and third-place teams, respectively.

"The plastics industry is constantly innovating to improve the sustainability and recyclability of our products, and this program is a perfect representation of that," said Patrick Krieger, PLASTICS vice president of sustainability. "I congratulate these five finalists for their innovative solutions and look forward to watching them present their ideas at NPE in Orlando, Florida."

In 2022, Hillenbrand joined forces with Net Impact. With a shared goal to find ways to build a more just and sustainable world, Hillenbrand and Net Impact launched the inaugural Circular Plastics Challenge in 2023 with additional support from The Coca-Cola Company. Hillenbrand and Coca-Cola guide the topic of the competition, and Net Impact facilitates the competition by bringing together its global network of social impact and sustainability leaders to address the challenge.

"This program continues to strike a chord among our community of emerging business leaders," said Karen Johns, CEO of Net Impact. "It allows them to grapple with a real-world corporate sustainability problem and put what they're learning in the classroom to the test. Our partnership with Hillenbrand and The Coca-Cola Company serves as a model for how businesses and nonprofits can partner together to activate emerging leaders, engage the next generation, and provide robust experiential education opportunities for a diverse future workforce."

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