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Insights and News /

05 June 2019

Hacking away at the plastic problem

Louis Blaxill

Louis Blaxill
Analyst | Products and services | London

Anna Mackenzie

Anna Mackenzie
Consultant | Consumer products and retail | London

As Baringa comes to the end of its ‘plastic free’ month, we wanted to take a closer look at our consultants’ participation in one of this year’s successful initiatives in the fight to reduce the use of single-use plastic - London’s first ever Plastic Hackathon. What has it achieved and how did it do it?

What is a Hackathon? It’s an approach that is typically used for, fast, agile, creative problem solving where small groups work together to collaboratively investigate a problem. The Plastic Hackathon’s purpose was to find innovative ‘reuse/refill’ solutions to the use of single use plastic. Each group came up with solutions for specific target areas within retail, including reusing takeaway containers, rental clothing, and reusable travel cosmetics pouches. Dhruv Boruah, an ex-consultant, campaigner and angel investor, organised the Hackathon and we supported the initiative by inputting design capability and providing retail expertise to help solve the current plastic problem in the industry.

The success of the Hackathon can be largely attributed to three main factors:

1. Diversity in the team

The hackathon combined passionate volunteers in small groups in order to rethink the use of plastic. Participants predominantly fell into three broad categories:

1) Industry experts from Baringa, Just Eat and Marks & Spencer framed the issues and highlighted potential pitfalls from a retail perspective

2) Demographic groups such as mothers and students provided input as consumers. Furthermore, design students provided a fresh, unconstrained view and were also able to mock-up products to bring the ideas to life.

3) Entrepreneurs provided insight into launching a product and writing up the business plan. The cross-functional expertise, and shared collective goal fostered an open and collaborative environment conducive for sharing ideas and solutionising.  

2. Encouragement of blue sky thinking with a clear purpose to achieve attainable objectives

Whilst the Hackathon aimed to encourage ambitious and impactful solutions, there was a clearly defined ask, specific target areas and a focus on a ‘reuse/refill’ solution. Each solution encouraged human behaviour change without compromising on convenience or profit. For example, one of the finalists ‘The Tupper Club’ sought to reinvent the takeaway dining experience. The outcome was a smart container drop and wash subscription model that eliminated the need for single use containers without inhibiting the takeaway experience.

The winning team ideated the concept of refillable miniature cosmetics bags for flights which could then be returned at airports, targeting an industry that produces 5,000 tonnes of waste plastic a year.

3. Having a shared purpose

To ensure that a Hackathon is effective, there must be a clearly defined goal and collective incentive to drive the participants. In this instance, an external Sustainable Ventures committee gave the finalists the opportunity to pitch for £200k seed money. Two of the teams have since gone on to found businesses to implement the ideas from the hackathon.

If approached correctly, with the right combination of expertise, Hackathons can be a rapid, and effective way to progress innovative ideas and solutions. The results speak for themselves. The efforts of the two start-ups are set to eliminate more than 2 million tonnes of plastic from the British economy over the next year. A follow up plastic Hackathon is due to take place this month to build its initial success.