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Patenting the end of plastic pollution


16th Mar 2018

Patents exist for inventions that solve real world problems, and the world is currently facing one of its biggest ever problems; plastic, and the ever increasing demand for its use in packaging our everyday items.

In many ways, plastic is a wonderful thing. It’s an amazingly cheap, strong, lightweight, and versatile material, which significantly contributes to the convenience of our everyday lives. It can make our food fresher, our homes more energy efficient, and our goods lighter, to name just a few things.

However, the past 12 months have seen a dramatic rise in public interest in plastic packaging for another reason; the effect it is having on our environment. This was perhaps most dramatically highlighted last autumn by the BBC TV series, Blue Planet II, which bleakly demonstrated the damage the material is causing to our oceans and marine life. The show illustrated: how sea birds are inadvertently feeding small pellets of plastic to their young; how turtles and whales are becoming entangled and injured in floating plastic debris; and – perhaps most worryingly of all – how small micro particles of plastic are being absorbed into marine life and entering our food chain.

The problem is worsened by the fact that plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years and quadruple by 2050. Growing middle class populations in countries such as China and India will only see the demand for convenient, disposable items, such as plastic water bottles, increase.

Since the release of Blue Planet II a number of UK companies have publically pledged to take action to tackle the plastic packaging problem. For example: sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger have introduced a 50p discount for customers bringing their own reusable cups; supermarket chains Aldi and Iceland have vowed to remove or reduce plastic packaging for their its own label products by 2022 and 2023 respectively; and delivery service Deliveroo have promised to introduce a new line of eco-packaging for their associated restaurants to use . More generally, the UK government have outlined a 25 year environmental plan, which amongst other things, aims to:

  • eliminate avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042; and
  • significantly reduce and where possible prevent all kinds of marine plastic pollution.

These pledges and targets are no doubt welcomed, but how will the government and such companies actually be able achieve these aims and more? Well, the obvious answer it to use less plastic, but this is easier said than done, and only goes part of the way to solving the problem.

In reality, consumers will not accept inferior products, and given how many benefits plastic offers as a material, more innovative solutions will be needed if significant progress is to be made. For example, alternative materials will need to be developed to provide all of the benefits of plastic (e.g. cheap, strong, lightweight), but without the environmental impact. The efficiency of recycling needs to be improved, so that it can become a more viable and economical proposition. The design of packaging needs to be improved so that products can be transported and stored more efficiently, and subsequently disposed of or recycled more easily.

At each and every step of the way innovation will be required; and, where there is innovation, there is the potential for protection through the patent system. For example, if a company develops a new chemical compound, which has all the benefits of plastic but which also easily biodegrades, then they could prevent others from copying this compound by protecting it with a patent. If a company devises a new packaging or bottle design which provides the same strength as an existing product, but uses less material, then they could secure exclusivity over this design with a patent. If a company develops a new recycling process or apparatus, or alters an existing process or apparatus, to obtain an improvement in efficiency, then they too could be entitled to protect their endeavours through the patent system.

For every success story, there will of course be many failures. It is therefore vital that companies are encouraged to continue innovating through such failures, until adequate solutions are found. The patent system can provide a means for this, by offering companies the chance for a fixed term monopoly for their invention in exchange for disclosing their idea to the world. Without this commercial reassurance, companies are less likely to invest in research and development, and therefore less likely to innovate the solutions needed for solving the problem.

There is no denying that the challenge being faced is vast, but so too is the reward. By way of example, it is estimated that the UK uses around 2.5 billion disposable (coffee) cups per year. The majority of these are difficult to recycle due to the tightly bonded plastic linings needed to make them watertight. If a fully recyclable or biodegradable alternative can be found, and protected by a patent, then an enormous financial reward would be available for the company able to develop this solution.

The problem of plastic packaging therefore poses a grave threat to the world, but also presents a tremendous opportunity for both economic and environmental gain, and the patent system is likely to be critical for companies hoping to succeed in tackling the challenge.

If you would like advice on protecting your own innovation in this area, please do get in touch: our experienced Consumer Products & Manufacturing Team will be happy to help.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

Author
Duncan Nevett
Senior Associate
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Would you like to know more? You can talk to Duncan Nevett who will be able to help. Call +44 (0)20 7242 0901

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