Making plastic packaging disappear….

Runners In the 2019 London Marathon encountered something different at one hydration station. Instead of plastic bottles of water, they got clear bubbles called Oohos filled with Lucozade energy drink to pop in their mouths. The whole thing was edible, but it didn’t matter whether the runners ate the packaging or not (about 30-40% did). The bubbles, if discarded on the ground, can be cleaned up like leaves or will biodegrade within six weeks.

Pierre-Yves Paslier, a former packaging engineer at L’Oréal, and designer Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez were studying innovation design engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art when they created the edible membrane in 2013 using a technique from molecular gastronomy.

“It’s a bit like a cherry tomato,” says Paslier. “You put it in your cheek and bite on it. It explodes, so it’s quite a surprising experience.” And it is not just energy drinks. Notpla partnered with the Scottish whisky brand Glenlivet in 2019 to make a “glassless cocktail” capsule, and ‘Espresso Martinis’ are a favourite at festivals, Paslier says.

Notpla, which stands for Not Plastic, has grown from that student project to become big business, raising millions in crowdfunding and venture capital, and winning awards galore along the way including the 2014 Lexus Design Award,  2014 World Technology Award (environment), the 2015 SEA Award and the 2016 UK Energy Globe Award. And it recently won an Earthshots prize.

The world has become much more aware of the problem of plastic pollution since 2013, so companies want better packaging solutions so their branded packages don’t show up in rivers or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “I think that they’re starting to realize that they need to really raise the game in terms of sustainability.”

And increasingly those solutions focus on seaweed. All three winners of the $1.2 million Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize use seaweed to design sustainable, biologically degradable alternatives to thin-film plastic. The fashion designer, who worked for Gucci for many years, worked with nonprofit Lonely Whale to create the prize in 2020. The fashion industry alone uses an estimated 180 billion thin-film polybags a year, and they make up almost half of plastic waste that leaks into oceans annually.

“I started this Prize three years ago with a harrowing fear that the world our children would inherit would no longer be a livable one,” Ford said as the prizes were awarded in March 2023. “I wanted to be a part of the solution, not be an arbiter of the problem. If we did nothing about the waste and pollution flooding our oceans the disruption to our planet would be irreconcilable. Watching the brilliant minds within this competition has given me extraordinary hope in making the impossible possible. Our three winners have created truly viable alternatives – alternatives that when scaled across markets and industries will drastically change the course of the health of our planet.”

As well as Notpla, the contest winners were Sway, an American company offering seaweed-based, home-compostable replacements for regenerative thin-film plastic packaging at scale, and Zerocircle, an India-based company making wildlife and ocean-safe packaging materials from locally cultivated seaweed that dissolve harmlessly after use.

“Imagine bringing home your groceries in a bag that looks like plastic but when thrown in your backyard becomes manure for your soil,” says Neha Jain, CEO and founder of Zerocircle. “It changes the way we see the world and exist in it.”

The $1.2 million prize purse was a combination cash prize and direct investment by title sponsors Tom Ford Beauty, The Estée Lauder Companies and Trousdale Ventures.  The winners were named after a nine-month testing phase sponsored by Nike. Awards were allocated as follows: $600,000 for Sway, $250,000 for Zerocircle and $150,000 for Notpla. A Milestone Award of $200,000 was distributed last year to eight finalists.

Women in Zanzibar, by Rachel Clara Reed, Wikimedia

Beyond offering a solution to plastic pollution, seaweed-based solutions also offer economic opportunities for coastal communities around the world, and is being explored as a way to capture carbon long-term.  Seaweed farmed for its production captures carbon twenty-times faster than trees, addressing one of the key causes of the climate crisis.

“Seaweed is an abundant, low-input feedstock that is farmed on coastlines around the world, without the need for land, fresh water or fertilizer,” says Sway CEO and co-founder Julia Marsh.

But one of the fascinating things is that the three winners are looking at a similar problem through the lens of different continents. “With over 12,000 species, seaweed is an incredibly diverse resource,” says Paslier. “Just like there are many different types of papers, we believe we need different types of seaweed film if we want to tackle the plastic challenge.”

The plastic innovation prize was intended to kick start change, and it certainly seems to have done so, both through accelerating access to capital and through an Early Adopter Coalition that includes several major clothing brands.

Less than six months after winning a 2022 Earthshot Prize, Notpla is moving ahead by leaps and bounds. As well as new collaborations with leading distributors in Europe and the UK, Notpla is getting ready for its largest fundraising round to date. It hopes to launch Nopla Coating in the US market and introduce other innovative product lines such as flexible seaweed-based films for packaging dry products.

Sway’s first public-facing pilots are slated for this spring, Marsh says, while Zerocircle aspires to make its packaging materials commercially available by the fall.


Winners Of The Tom Ford Plastic Innovation Prize Are All Using Seaweed. Forbes, Mar 24, 2023, 

Seaweed pouches will replace thousands of plastic bottles at the London marathon. CNN, Apr. 27, 2019

This edible blob filled with water means you don’t need a plastic bottle. Fast Company, Feb. 18, 2020

Cover image: Lucozade Sport