Plastic Evolution takes top spot in 2020 Wrigley Sustainability Prize contest
The annual USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize promotes entrepreneurial, sustainable solutions to ecological challenges. (Image Source: iStock/RomoloTavani.)

Plastic Evolution takes top spot in 2020 Wrigley Sustainability Prize contest

Three teams of inventive students take an entrepreneurial approach to tackling pressing environmental challenges. [3½ min read time]
Darrin S. Joy

A method for reclaiming plastics, smarter shipping containers and a reusable party cup all took top honors at the fourth annual USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize contest.

Competing for a total of $15,000 in awards, three teams of creative, entrepreneurial students worked with experts in science, sustainability and business to develop solutions to environmental challenges that threaten the Earth they’re inheriting.

Plastic Evolution, a team comprising USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences students Yuhao Chen, Yvonne Manjarrez and Collette Gordon, took first place with a sustainable method of converting plastic trash collected for recycling into building blocks for other useful products.

Composite portrait of Plastic Evolution team members

Plastic Evolution team members, from left, Yuhao Chen, Yvonne Manjarrez and Collette Gordon. (Photos: Courtesy of Jessica Dutton.)

Their method uses a catalyst based on cobalt, a readily available metal, to break apart polyethylene efficiently to produce glutaric and adipic acids.

Polyethylene is the most commonly used plastic in consumer products such as water bottles. Choking landfills and ocean gyres, it can take decades to degrade on its own, and current methods of processing recycled polyethylene are costly and dangerous.

Plastic Evolution’s process is safer and costs less, according to the team, and the compounds produced are under increasing commercial demand: Adipic acids can be used in food additives and to produce nylon; glutaric acid can be used to create biodegradable plastics, a market that is expected to reach $6 billion by 2026.

“We are upgrading post-consumer plastic waste into high commercial value small molecules and limiting harmful impact on our environment in a way that nobody else can,” said Chen, a master’s student.

Chen, doctoral candidate Manjarrez and Gordon, an undergraduate, are each studying chemistry as they work to establish Plastic Evolution as a viable business, guided by advisors Travis Williams, professor of chemistry, and Megan Fieser, Gabilan Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

Party on, sustainably

The contest judges found two other ideas equally worthy, resulting in a tie for second place.

SUPCUP, the brainchild of USC Dornsife psychology major Daphne Armstrong, aims to replace the ubiquitous red party cup with a stainless-steel version.

Photo of Daphna Armstrong holding a SUPCUP

SUPCUP’s Daphne Armstrong. (Courtesy of Jessica Dutton.)

Red party cups represent a significant ecological danger, Armstrong said, and millions find their way to the ocean and landfills each year just from university parties.

“Party cups are made from plastic number six, polystyrene,” she said. “We use the cups for 15 minutes, then they’re on our Earth for 450 to 1,000 years, breaking down into microplastics.”

Microplastics, pieces about the size of a sesame seed or smaller, are coming under increasing scrutiny for possible dangerous health effects. Scientists have confirmed they are widespread in the global food web, as animals mistakenly ingest them.

In addition, Armstrong said, polystyrene is difficult and dangerous to recycle, and when it ends up mixed in with other plastics for recycling, it ruins the entire batch, which recyclers then send directly to landfills.

Mimicking the look of its polystyrene inspiration, the red SUPCUP can be reused indefinitely, offering a more sustainable alternative, according to Armstrong.

She said she will use her winnings from the USC Wrigley Prize to further market her invention.

Out of the box thinking

Team Infinity Boxx— Donielle Sullivan, Jim Welty, Del Necessary and Steven Schwartz of the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy — addressed the problem of single-use cardboard boxes.

Composite portrait of Infinity Boxx team members

Clockwise from upper left, Donielle Sullivan, Del Necessary, Steven Schwartz and Jim Welty of Infinity Boxx. (Composite: Courtesy of Jessica Dutton.)

More than 165 billion cardboard boxes landed on porches last year, even before the coronavirus pandemic boosted online orders, they said, and about half ended their days in landfills.

“Los Angeles is home to the largest landfill in the United States,” said Sullivan, “and it’s our goal to help L.A. lose that title by providing a reusable alternative to single-use shipping boxes.”

The team designed a variety of unique, reusable packages, including an inflatable box made from recycled materials that claims a permanent return label, moisture barriers and surfaces that are resistant to bacteria and viruses. The boxes also collapse to a size that can be mailed back to the vendor.

Technology integrated into the packaging allows senders and recipients to track the package using the team’s mobile app.

Sullivan, Welty, Necessary and Schwartz believe their product could, in the course of three years, save 10 million trees and eliminate 15 billion water bottles.

About the competition

Sponsored by the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, the USC Wrigley Sustainability Prize is an annual, entrepreneurial competition supporting environmental ideas with market potential from within the USC community.

The event highlights start-up ideas from all disciplines and rewards concepts that could result in meaningful environmental change with prize money to help teams put their ideas into action.

Teams receive hands-on mentorship from experts in business, science, sustainability and entrepreneurship. Finalists are invited to pitch their concepts for judging.