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As a packaging technologist, I could tell you a thing or two about the plastic pollution challenges in retail and as a father of three young girls I also feel compelled to make a difference in helping to fix the issue. I’m also a lifelong Aston Villa fan, so I could tell you about regularly dealing with adversity and failure in a home stadium like any other, that frequently gets littered with plastic waste. Much like my beloved football team on any given Saturday, the planet and its oceans are in trouble. We’re deep into injury time, still desperately looking for those winning ideas which solve all our problems. We need the super-subs profit and scalability to come off the bench and turn good ideas into actions.

Enter sustainability campaigner Dhruv Boruah and his idea for the first ever Plastic Hackathon, which brought together a small but passionate team of experts, entrepreneurs, big business people, scientists, students and young people to collaborate in the urgent search for scalable solutions that help tackle the global challenge posed by single use plastic pollution. Hosted at Imperial College London last Saturday 9th February, Dhruv and his team, which included myself as one of the experts, set attendees a ‘Reuse and Refill’ challenge in five keys areas where single use plastic packaging is still a major issue: Grocery shopping, online shopping, personal care, food to go and ordering takeaways.

As anyone in the packaging industry will tell you, there have been many of these types of innovation events in recent years resulting in some great ideas but very little commercial viability or follow up. We are, after all, dealing with very challenging and complex areas that require a shift in consumer behaviour – and if the perfectly ‘green’ and circular solutions that deliver food and consumer goods in a safe, healthy, cost-effective and convenient format were easy, we’d already be doing it!

With that in mind, we were proud to have part-funded the first ever Plastic Hackathon event. After 12 hours of hard work and deliberation, we saw a winning personal care idea involving reusable mini travel containers and some inspirational runners up in all the other categories, which proved that plastic packaging is still a fantastic enabler of sustainable and profitable new business models. We will continue to support the Plastic Hackathon and look forward to many more inspirational events. 

So, depending on whether your reusable water bottle is ‘half full or half empty’, you may view this as another innovation talking shop or the start of something big. For me, it feels like the latter given Dhruv’s ambition of creating an incubator of solutions that will now be developed and launched in the real world. Through a genuine spirit of collaboration and without the conventional restrictions of incumbent supply chains, the team are planning to succeed thought their iterative process of failing often but failing forward.

While we continue innovating to find more sustainable solutions for packaging at M&S, we recently launched a plastic take-back scheme to enable customers to bring back non-recyclable plastic packaging across Food and Beauty and prevent waste from going to landfill. Working in partnership with Dow and Wastebuster, we’ve pledged to give collected plastic a new life by recycling it into store fittings, playground equipment and more take-back bins for additional stores – a truly circular process! 

It’s been said before, but if we want to go fast, we go alone but if we want to go far, we must go together. We’re excited to see where the Hackathon’s ideas take us into a genuinely more sustainable and circular future.

Read more about the Plastic Hackathon’s winning idea here