Funding competition Designing sustainable plastic solutions

Competition to win funding for early-stage, human-centred design projects to reduce plastics’ harm to the environment, increase productivity and grow the UK economy.

This competition is now closed.

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Competition sections


Innovate UK, as part of UK Research and Innovation, will invest up to £800,000 to fund early-stage, human-centred design projects to reduce the harm that plastics have on our environment and to therefore increase productivity and growth of the UK economy. This funding is from the Plastic Research and Innovation Fund.

All projects awarded funding must upload evidence for each expenditure with every claim made. These might include invoices, timesheets, receipts or spreadsheets for capital usage. This is part of Innovate UK’s obligations under the Managing Public Money government handbook in relation to assurance, financial management and control.

This aim of this competition is to help businesses to create designs for innovative goods, services or business models that will result in less persistent plastic waste entering our environment. This should be achieved by them obtaining a better understanding of relevant customer and user behaviours.

The competition closes at midday 12pm UK time on the deadline stated.

Funding type


Project size

Your project’s total eligible costs must be between £20,000 and £80,000

Who can apply

State aid
Any UK registered business claiming grant funding must be eligible to receive state aid at the time we confirm you will be awarded funding. It is not possible to award grant funding to organisations meeting the condition known as undertakings in difficulty. If you are unsure please take legal advice. For further information see our general guidance on state aid.
Your project
Your project must:
  • have total eligible costs between £20,000 and £80,000
  • start by 1 January 2021 and end by 30 June 2021
  • last between 3 and 6 months
If your project’s total eligible costs or duration fall outside of our eligibility criteria, you must provide justification and seek prior approval by email to at least 10 days before the competition closes. We will decide whether to approve your request.
Lead organisation
To lead a project or work alone your organisation must:
  • be a UK registered business of any size
  • carry out its project work in the UK
  • intend to exploit the results from or in the UK
  • claim funding by entering their costs into the Innovation Funding Service (IFS) during the application
Academic institutions cannot lead or work alone. Find out which definition your organisation falls into. Businesses can work alone or in collaboration with project partners.
Project team
To collaborate with the lead, your organisation must:
  • be a UK registered business/academic institution/charity/not-for-profit/public sector organisation/research and technology organisation (RTO)
  • carry out its project work in the UK
  • intend to exploit the results from or in the UK
  • be invited by the lead organisation
The lead and at least one other organisation (if a collaboration) must claim funding by entering their costs into Innovation Funding Service during the application. Each partner organisation (if a collaboration) must be invited into the Innovation Funding Service by the lead to collaborate on a project. Partners must enter their own project costs into the Innovation Funding Service. Your project can include partners that do not receive any of this competition’s funding, for example non-UK businesses. Their costs will count towards the total eligible project costs.
Subcontractors are allowed in this competition. Subcontractors can be from anywhere in the UK/European Economic Area (EEA). We would expect subcontractor costs to be justified and appropriate to the total eligible project costs. You can use subcontractors, particularly design specialists. You can work with multiple sub-contractors on a single project.
Subcontractors can be:
  • UK registered businesses or businesses from EEA
  • universities
  • Research technology organisations
  • PSREs
  • research council institutes
  • public sector organisations
  • charities

Sub-contractors are not partners and are paid by the grant recipient. For this competition total sub-contracting costs must not be more than 70% of the total project costs.

All sub-contractors must be named on the application form, and each must have a unique and clearly defined role within the project. Subcontractors do not submit a finance form and will not be part of the project collaboration agreement.

Multiple applications
Any one business can lead on one application and collaborate in a further 2 applications. If a business is not leading an application, they can collaborate in up to 3 applications. An academic institution can collaborate on any number of applications.
Project showcase
Applicants are expected to present and showcase the output of their project at an event and exhibition coordinated by the Knowledge Transfer Network. This will be held after the project completion date and can take the most appropriate form for your project, for example, a prototype, poster or video.

Previous applications


You can use a resubmission to apply for this competition. A resubmission is a proposal Innovate UK judges as not materially different from one you've submitted before. It can however be updated based on the assessors' feedback.

If you submit a new proposal this time you will be able to use it in no more than one future competition that allows resubmissions.

Failure to exploit

If you applied to a previous competition as the lead or sole organisation and were awarded funding by Innovate UK or UK Research and Innovation, but did not make a substantial effort to exploit that award, we will award no more funding to you, in this or any other competition. You will not be able to contest our decision. We will:

  • assess your efforts in the previous competition against your exploitation plan for that project
  • review the monitoring officers’ reports and any other relevant sources for evidence
  • document our decision, which will be made by 3 team members, and communicate it to you in writing

Previous projects

Under the terms of Innovate UK funding, you are required to submit an independent accountant’s report (IAR) with your final claim. If you or any organisation in your consortium failed to submit an IAR on a previous project, we will not award funding to you in this or any other competition until we have received the documents.


Text edit 27 August 2020: we have added the rules for using subcontractors on this competition.
We have allocated up to £800,000 to fund innovation projects in this competition.

If your organisation’s work on the project is mostly commercial or economic, your funding request must not exceed the limits below. These limits apply even if your organisation normally acts non-economically.

For industrial research projects, you could get funding for your eligible project costs of:

  • up to 70% if you are a micro or small organisation
  • up to 60% if you are a medium-sized organisation
  • up to 50% if you are a large organisation


  • projects can use subcontractors, particularly design specialists
  • sub-contractors can be UK registered businesses or businesses from EEA, universities, RTOs, PSREs, research council institutes, public sector organisations or charities
  • sub-contractors are not partners and do not claim grant - they are paid by the grant recipient
  • for this competition total sub-contracting costs must not be more than 70% of the total project costs
  • you can work with multiple sub-contractors on a single project
  • all sub-contractors must be named on the application form, and each must have a unique and clearly defined role within the project. Please note, subcontractors do not submit a finance form and will not be part of the project collaboration agreement

All the UK registered research organisations on your project combined cannot claim more than 50% of total eligible project costs unless acting as a subcontractor. If your consortium contains more than one research organisation, this maximum will be shared between them.

This competition provides state aid funding under article 25, ‘Aid for research and development projects’, of the General Block Exemption Regulation (GBER). It is your responsibility to make sure that your organisation is eligible to receive state aid.

Your proposal

This competition aims to stimulate innovation in design to reduce persistent plastic waste from landfill or entering the environment.

Your project should follow established human-centred research and design principles. It could involve working with new or existing partners, in new ways, and it must involve hands-on customer/user research as a means of informing and testing novel ideas. These ideas could include the radical re-design of existing goods, services or business models, or the design of entirely new ones which serve an existing need in a way that doesn’t rely on single-use plastic.

Here the term ‘design’ is understood broadly to include all necessary disciplines to arrive at a new design specification, and could include contributions from engineering, materials science, service design, circular design and systems thinking.

At completion, we expect projects to deliver a well-informed and viable design concept for an innovative product, service or business model, along with actionable next steps for development and towards commercialisation.

The new designs may be for either business-to-business or business-to-consumer applications. Where possible, the new design should enable reuse or product life-extension approaches over recycling. Design and investigation of new business models and consideration of driving behaviour change are also encouraged. If the focus of your project is ‘Design for Recycling’ then the outcome must be compatible with existing recycling infrastructure and technology.

Applicants should clearly describe where revenue generation and growth will occur in the UK as a result of the innovation and its exploitation. The benefits of the new approach should be quantified as far as possible, and any assumptions regarding market size and environmental impacts described and justified.

Innovate UK are looking to fund a portfolio of projects across:

  • sectors, including but not limited to packaging, transport, construction, healthcare, agriculture and consumer products;
  • design disciplines including but not limited to industrial, product, user experience (UX) and service design (all with a human-centred approach)

Research categories

We will fund industrial research projects as defined in the general guidance.

Projects we will not fund

We are not funding projects that:

  • develop a novel product or component which is single-use
  • involve the production of any kind of fuel or direct energy generation from plastic waste
  • create any form of ‘Design for Recycling’ guidance

20 May 2020
Online briefing event: watch the recording
3 June 2020
Competition opens
16 September 2020 12:00pm
Competition closes
30 October 2020 10:19am
Applicants notified

Before you start

Innovate UK is unable to award grant funding to organisations meeting the condition known as undertakings in difficulty.

What we will ask you

The application is split into 3 sections:

  1. Project details.
  2. Application questions.
  3. Finances.

1. Project details

This section sets the scene for the assessors and is not scored.

Application team

Decide which organisations will work with you on the project. Invite people from those organisations to help complete the application.

Application details

The lead applicant must complete this section. Give your project’s title, start date and duration. Is the application a resubmission?

Research category

Select the type of research you will undertake.

Project summary

Describe your project briefly and be clear about what makes it innovative. We use this section to assign experts to assess your application.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

Public description

Describe your project in detail, and in a way that you are happy to see published. Do not include any commercially sensitive information. If we award your project funding, we will publish this description. This could happen before you start your project.

Your answer can be up to 400 words long.


Describe how your project fits the scope of the competition. If your project is not in scope it will be immediately rejected and will not be sent for assessment. We will give you feedback on why. Your answer can be up to 400 words long.

2. Application questions

The assessors will score your answers. You will receive feedback from them for each one.

Your answer to each question can be up to 400 words long. Do not include any URLs in your answers.

Question 1: Project motivation and objectives

What problem, challenge or opportunity relating to the prevention of persistent plastic pollution entering the environment do you plan to explore through this project?

What high-level objectives do you expect to achieve through this project?

You should describe or explain:

  • the context and motivation for the project
  • the main aims and objectives of the project
  • who will benefit directly from the project outcomes, and how
  • any relevant wider economic, social, environmental, cultural or political challenges which you are aware of or wish to explore further through this project

Question 2: Project activities and outputs

How will you conduct the project to achieve the aims set out in question 1? You should outline a concise, step-by-step project plan, broken down into individual phases of work. For each phase, explain:

  • what will be done
  • who will do it
  • what the outputs will be
  • how those outputs will help towards fulfilling the overall project objectives

Refer to any specific design processes or tools you plan to use.

You can submit one appendix which can include charts and diagrams as a PDF to support your answer. It can be up to 2 A4 pages and no larger than 1MB. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 3: Team and resources

Who will carry out the work and how will you access appropriate design capability?

Give details of:

  • the roles, skills and relevant experience of the project team
  • the specific experience, expertise and capabilities of the team with regard to early-stage, human-centred design
  • any resources, equipment and facilities required for the project and how you will access them
  • any important external parties, including sub-contractors, who you will need to work with to execute the project successfully
  • any gaps in the team that will need to be filled

You can submit one appendix. This can include a short summary of the main people working on the project to support your answer. It must be a PDF and can be up to 4 A4 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 4: Risks

What are the main risks for this project?

Describe or explain:

  • the main risks and uncertainties of the project, including the technical, commercial, managerial and environmental risks
  • how these risks will be mitigated
  • any project inputs that are critical to completion, such as resources, expertise, data sets
  • the steps you will take to make sure that new discoveries and ideas will be recognised, supported and have lasting impact within your business

You must submit a risk register as an appendix to support your answer. It must be a PDF and can be up to 2 A4 pages long. The font must be legible at 100% zoom.

Question 5: Additionality

Describe the impact that an injection of public funding would have on this project.

Describe or explain:

  • if this project could go ahead in any form without public funding and if so, the difference the public funding would make, such as a faster route to market, more partners or reduced risk
  • the likely impact of the project on the businesses of the partners involved
  • why you are not able to wholly fund the project from your own resources or other forms of private-sector funding, and what would happen if the application is unsuccessful
  • how this project would change the nature of research and development activity the partners would undertake, and the related spend

Question 6: Costs and value for money

How much will the project cost and how does it represent value for money for the team and the taxpayer?

Describe or explain:

  • the total project cost and the grant being requested in terms of the project goals
  • how the partners will finance their contributions to the project
  • how this project represents value for money for you and the taxpayer and how it compares to what you would spend your money on otherwise?
  • the balance of costs and grant across the project partner
  • any sub-contractor costs and why they are critical to the project

3. Finances

Each organisation in your project must complete their own project costs, organisational details and funding details. Academic institutions will need to complete and upload a Je-S form. For full details on what costs you can claim please see our project costs guidance.

Background and further information

The environmental impact of goods and services can be reduced through better design, but the benefits will only be realised if these new designs are readily adopted by customers. They must therefore fit with people’s existing behaviour patterns, or else be consciously designed to encourage and facilitate changes in behaviour.

This competition will provide grants to help businesses better understand relevant customer and user behaviours and use that knowledge to create designs for innovative goods, services or business models that will result in less persistent plastic waste entering our environment.

Extra help

If you want help to find a project partner, contact the Knowledge Transfer Network.

Enterprise Europe Network

If you are a UK SME and successful in receiving an award, you will be contacted by your local Enterprise Europe Network (EEN) Innovation Advisor. They act on behalf of Innovate UK to discuss the growth opportunities for your business.

They offer bespoke business support services to help you maximise your project and business potential. This service forms part of your Innovate UK offer under our commitment to help UK SMEs grow and scale.

Please engage positively with your EEN contact so that, working together, you can determine the most appropriate form of growth support for your business.

If you need more information, email us at or call the competition helpline on 0300 321 4357 between 9am and 5:30pm, Monday to Friday.

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