London startup founded by students to replace plastic with seaweed wins Prince William’s £1m Earthshot Prize

A London-based startup which “makes packaging disappear” was among the winners at the second annual Earthshot Prize awards ceremony on Friday night hosted by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Notpla, started in a student kitchen by university friends Pierre Paslier and Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez eight years ago, creates a green alternative to plastic packaging from seaweed. Notpla made over 1 million takeaway food boxes this year, and has the potential to replace over 100 million plastic-coated containers in the future.

William and Kate arrived in Boston on Wednesday to launch Earthshot, the prince’s signature environmental project, which celebrates innovations to tackle climate change.

The glitzy evening ceremony held at Fenway Park, was attended by actors Rami Malek, Catherine O’Hara and Daniel Dae Kim, singers Billie Eilish and Ellie Goulding, former footballer David Beckham and politicians including Republican Senator Mitt Romney and his wife Ann.

William and Kate on the green carpet in Boston, Massachusetts (Reuters)
William and Kate on the green carpet in Boston, Massachusetts (Reuters)

Ahead of the gala, the princess attended an event on early childhood development at Harvard University while the prince met with President Joe Biden and the Kennedy family.

Winners in five categories were awarded a £1m ($1.2m) prize after being selected by a judging panel which included Prince William, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan, Sir David Attenborough, former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, businessman Jack Ma and climate activist Luisa Neubauer.

Awards were decided across five categories – Protect and Restore Nature; Clean our Air; Revive our Oceans; Build a Waste-free World; and Fix our Climate.

Other winners included a Kenyan startup, Mukuru Clean Stoves, which provides cleaner-burning stoves to women to reduce indoor pollution. From Kheyti in India, a pioneering “greenhouse-in-box” that helps smallhold famers adapt to climate change also won.

The other million-pound prizes were awarded to a women-led, Indigenous programme in Australia which uses traditional knowledge and digital technology to protect the Great Barrier Reef, and an Oman-based company which turns planet-heating carbon into rock and permanently stores it underground.

Notpla co-founder Pierre Paslier said: “When Rodrigo and I started Notpla eight years ago in our student kitchen, we would have never imagined we would be here today. No one wants to live in a world full of plastic waste but it’s not too late to act. There’s never been a greater time to use natural solutions to solve the plastic challenge.

David Beckham attends the second annual Earthshot Prize Awards (Reuters)
David Beckham attends the second annual Earthshot Prize Awards (Reuters)

The awards were devised by Prince William after he was inspired by the late President John F Kennedy’s 1960s Moonshot challenge which drove space innovation and saw the US put a man on the moon.

“I believe that the Earthshot solutions you have seen this evening prove we can overcome our planet’s greatest challenges. And by supporting and scaling them we can change our future,” Prince William said at the event.

“Alongside tonight’s winners and finalists, and those to be discovered over the years to come, it’s my hope the Earthshot legacy will continue to grow, helping our communities and our planet to thrive.”

During an interview with The Independent in 2021, Mr Paslier recalled how he and fellow inventor Rodrigo Garcia Gonzalez met while studying for their Masters in innovation design engineering at Imperial College London and the Royal College of Art in London.

Schitt’s Creek star Catherine O’Hara and Bo Welch attend the The Earthshot Prize 2022 (Getty Images)
Schitt’s Creek star Catherine O’Hara and Bo Welch attend the The Earthshot Prize 2022 (Getty Images)

Notpla, aka “not pla-stic”, can now be used for a range of packaging products, such as a bubble to hold liquids, a coating for food containers, and a paper for the cosmetic and fashion industry.

Along with making more than 1 million takeaway containers for, Notpla products have been at the London Marathon to replace thousands of single-use paper cups, for ketchup packets, and to serve boozy shots at music festivals.

Mr Paslier previously told The Independent how his student flat became a test kitchen for techniques, some of which are used in molecular gastronomy – a Nineties culinary fad popularised by chefs like Heston Blumenthal.

“We didn’t have access to a lab so we were in our kitchen, cooking up all sorts of weird and wonderful things,” he said.

The company’s “Ooho” packaging is flexible and suitable for beverages and sauces, for example. It biodegrades in four to six weeks – or you can just eat it.

Notpla packaging holding ketchup to replace plastic (Notpla)
Notpla packaging holding ketchup to replace plastic (Notpla)

“They are not as robust as plastic but definitely robust enough to be fit for purpose,” Mr Paslier said. “It’s like the resistance of a fruit. So if you squish it, you’re going to mush it. But if you’re trying to grab it, like to drink as you’re running, it works fine.”

Mr Paslier is a seaweed superfan and it’s not hard to see why. The marine plant is not only biodegradable but is just beginning to get the recognition it deserves as a highly effective, natural way to store CO2. The start-up founder said that he expected its applications to grow but currently, it was best utilised in moments of “quick consumption and high risk of littering”.

“I cannot even imagine what we’re going to be able to do with seaweed, when we invest as much time, resources and brainpower as we have on plastic,” he said.

“Plastic has had a free [research and development] run for 70 years with the brightest minds in the world. If we apply that to seaweed, we could do incredible things.”