If Gabriella Jacobsen’s design education is indeed, as she says, her “secret superpower,” then it’s a good thing for the rest of us that she’s harnessing it for good rather than ill. The Virginia Tech senior snagged the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge Award for “Best Student Project” this week for the “Onward” bag, a convertible backpack-cum-laptop case derived from organic-cotton canvas, biodegradable dyes, and 60 to 70 recycled plastic bags. Created in response to the problem of plastic pollution, particularly in the world’s waterways, the sleek carryall embodies the “circular economy” in more ways than one. “The bag, which leads to the decomposition of the cotton canvas and the recycling of the high-density polyethylene, is based off of nature’s decomposition and nutrient cycles,” Jacobsen explained. “The user’s experience of the bag, which is deconstructed by the user at the end of the bag’s life, is to remind the user of and relink the user to the natural cycles that surrounds him or her.”

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Jacobsen said she spent six weeks developing the Onward bag, which features wave-like patterns on its front to evoke the ocean’s ebb and flow. Its objective isn’t merely to schlep stuff around, however.

“It is not enough anymore to ‘just design a computer bag,'” Jacobsen said. “One must ask, ‘why should this computer bag exist?’ and ‘where in our product system does the life of this computer bag fit?’ My biggest challenge was to not comprise with existing materials but to force myself to look into developing new, more-sustainable materials and manufacturing methods that would bring together a more holistic approach to building a tech bag.”

It’s time for a design-led revolution, she added, but it can only happen with education.

My vision for the design-led revolution would begin with designers having a better understanding of where the resources we design we use come from,” Jacobsen said. “I hope that product sustainability becomes part of the [foundation] of every design education. I see my design education as my secret superpower, in which I am able to enact real positive change in the world around me.”

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The Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge, hosted by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute and Autodesk, is a biannual competition designed to eliminate the concept “waste,” as well as spur the development of a “circular market standard,” according to Lewis Perkins, the institute’s interim president.

Winners in the four categories—Best Student Project, Best Professional Project, Best Use of Aluminum, and Best Use of Autodesk Fusion 360—each received a $2,000 cash prize.

Other award-winning ideas included a recycled-aluminum bike helmet and a recyclable broom outfitted with biodegradable bristles.

“The Design Challenge is a powerful demonstration of designing with intention to ensure materials in manufactured products retain their value and can be perpetually upcycled,” Perkins said. “This year’s winners each exemplify the quest for material health and reuse, and they have brought us one step closer to the goal of a circular market standard.”

+ Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge