December 11th, 2013

To the victor the (reduction in) spoils…

7 minute read

by Emma Gowing


It may come as a surprise to some, but the life of an environmental consultant is not always a glamorous one. In fact, you’re more likely to find me at the business end of a bin lorry than enjoying the razzle-dazzle at the Ritz. But last Wednesday was a bit of an exception… The occasion was the ceremony to announce the winner of Nesta’s £50,000 Waste Reduction Challenge Prize. Amongst the guests at Plough Place, Holborn was civil society Minister Nick Hurd who was tasked with handing over the award.


For good measure

I’ve been working to support the project, including helping the six finalists to design and implement a method to gather and record data over a six month trial period to help assess the waste prevention impact of each of their projects. Gathering data is often one of the trickiest aspects of waste prevention – one of the reasons why I’ve also been working on a free waste prevention toolkit to help local authorities work out which measures might have the biggest impact in their area.

Understandably, many of the challenge prize finalists were focused on the mechanics of making their projects work: engaging with volunteers, partners and clients; sourcing materials, designing containers and scheduling collections; arranging events, including a substantial conference; and trying to tweet, e-mail and Facebook their way into the public consciousness. I’m sure the last thing they wanted was some crazy woman telling them they had to weigh everything! And record it! On a spreadsheet!

To overcome this, we worked together to design and develop a practical monitoring method for each organisation, and were able to gather some really good data – not easy for groups like the Brixton People’s Kitchen who didn’t necessarily have the same volunteers at each event. Sometimes it was just a question of finding suitable weighing equipment for a particular project, but I was also able to provide advice on waste legislation, mentor some of the participants, and introduce them to useful contacts.


Glean winner

The projects themselves were extremely diverse, as were the organisations behind them. Some were newly formed, others had been operating for a number of years; some were small and local while others were national organisations; some had lots of experience while others were finding their feet. Although each of them was valuable the Gleaning Network UK, which harvests ugly and unwanted fruit and vegetables that would otherwise go to waste, was a worthy winner.

The five other finalists were:

  • Unblocking the Community – project run by Proper Oils that set up a network of community collection hubs to collect used cooking oil from households;
  • Brixton People’s Kitchen – a mobile kitchen used as a focus to create community vegetarian meal events at community venues using food from local retailers that would have otherwise gone to waste;
  • The Food Connection Programme – a Fareshare/Foodcycle project to develop connections between partner charities and food retailers to provide food to those in need;
  • The Rubbish Diet – an eight week programme of one-to-one, blog, email and radio support to householders to the amount of waste they produce, and increase the proportion that they recycle or compost; and
  • The People’s Design Lab, which facilitates designing waste out of products.


Each is a good idea and it’s a shame they couldn’t all have won – but I suppose that isn’t how challenge prizes work. In which case, you might ask whether a challenge prize is a good way to encourage innovation in areas like waste prevention…


Plum Gleaning

Sweet gleans: volunteers picking plums that would otherwise be wasted. Photo courtesy of Gleaning Network UK



Innovatively challenged

Challenge prizes have been used for centuries to stimulate creative approaches to thorny problems. Next year is the 300th anniversary of arguably the most famous challenge prize of all: the Longitude Prize. Offered in 1714, but only awarded some 50 years later, the prize of up to £20,000 resulted in the invention in of the chronometer – a device that enabled mariners to navigate accurately, and helped secure Britannia’s long rule over the waves.

In the 19th century, Napoleon instigated perhaps the first prize intended to prevent waste. His challenge to devise a means of preserving food to help keep his armies marching on their stomachs led to the advent of canning in 1810. He also instigated a prize for a butter substitute, which led to the invention of margarine in 1869.

More recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Reinvent the Toilet Challenge has provided innovative sanitation solutions that can save and improve lives around the world, with the first prize going to a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity.

These are all examples of where a challenge fund works well – if not always quickly. The problem posed is clear, success can be measured, and the solution seems tantalisingly achievable using fairly limited resources. The promise of a big return lures in time, effort and ingenuity from many sources, helping to massively speed up the search for a successful solution.

By contrast, some prizes have been set up to prove a point, rather than to be won. The James Randi Paranormal Prize, to be awarded to “anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability under fair conditions that prevent fraud or error,” has gone unclaimed for over 40 years, and through prudent investment has grown from $1,000 to $1m. The fact that such a rich prize has not been won does seem quite an important point to bear in mind next time you hear of spooky goings on.

Not every prize is quite so well designed. In June, David Cameron announced a £1m grand innovation challenge to solve “the biggest problem of our time.” But the challenge was not specified, it has been left open to the public to decide. The Prime Minister’s suggestions were “a cure for dementia, solving the problem of diabetes, having a flight from Britain to New York that’s carbon free”. Yet each of these is likely to require investment that massively outweighs the prize; and since their aims and impacts are so different, how would you choose between them? The problem has been left with Nesta and the Technology Strategy Board to solve – I feel they’ll deserve a prize themselves if they can work out how to award it.


Hoping for a re-prize

However, Nesta clearly have a good idea how to run a challenge prize. The Waste Reduction prize was particularly welcome when funding for waste prevention is generally hard to come by. It has produced some really good ideas and (arguably more importantly) some really good data. This has allowed all of the finalists the opportunity to demonstrate to potential funders and backers what their projects are able to achieve: Proper Oils is now working with a national container manufacturer to develop a secure drop off container for used cooking oil, which could help greatly increase collections of this problematic but valuable waste.

The success of this latest prize has got me thinking about what else could be a good subject for a challenge fund. My initial suggestions are:

  • Redesigning packaging material to reduce the likelihood or impact of marine litter or litter thrown from vehicles
  • Genuinely biodegradable bags that might even benefit the environment if littered – perhaps they might contain plant nutrients and wild flower seeds
  • Home 3D printing using waste plastic films and plastic food packaging
  • A workable system for plastic film collection and recycling


I’d be interested to hear what else people think would make a good challenge prize idea.

Coming from a 3rd sector recycling back ground myself, my recent work with Nesta and the Waste Reduction Challenge Fund participants has been a huge reminder of what a brilliantly vibrant and diverse place it can be. It has been a pleasure to be able to pass on some practical knowledge and make good use of the problem solving part of my brain. The project has been the most rewarding of my consultancy career so far, giving me the chance to work with enthusiastic and committed people who go out of their way to achieve great things often with few resources. I feel like I’ve won a prize myself, just by taking part – count me in for the next challenge fund!


Emma Gowing



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