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The last straw, what next?


31st May 2019

The UK’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove has recently confirmed a ban  on plastic straws, plastic drink stirrers, and plastic stemmed cotton buds which will come into force in England next year. But, what are the alternatives to plastic?

There’s no denying that plastic plays an important role in the modern world. Since the invention of the first synthetic plastic (US 942,699 ) in the early 20th century, the production of plastic has outgrown most other man-made materials. In a study  published in Science Advances, it is estimated that out of the 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic that the world has produced (as of 2015), 6.3 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste has been generated, only 9% of which has been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and a staggering 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. In particular, it is estimated  that up to 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic end up in our oceans each year.

Earlier this week the Malaysian government announced  that they will send back some 3,000 metric tonnes of non-recyclable plastic waste to countries including the US, UK, Canada and Australia in a move to avoid becoming a dumping ground for wealthier nations. Much of the waste was imported illegally and much of it cannot be recycled.

We previously reported on how technology which aims to end plastic pollution  could be protected with patents and how a genetically modified enzyme  capable of breaking down plastic is the subject of a patent application. While technology to improve how our plastic waste is managed is clearly important given our insatiable appetite for the stuff, it only represents part of the story. What if we didn’t need to use the plastic in the first place? All over the world, innovators are working to end our penchant for polymers.

Paper straws

With increasing awareness of the detrimental effects plastic has on our environment, more and more establishments are already replacing plastic straws with paper straws ahead of the effective date of the plastic straws ban in England.

But the humble paper straw is nothing new, it has been around for more than a century, having first been patented by Marvin Stone in England in 1887 and later in the US in 1888 (US 375,962 ). The aim of the invention was to provide a cheap, durable and unobjectionable substitute for the natural straws commonly used for the administration of medicines, beverages, etc. It is said that the invention came about after Stone was dissatisfied with the way natural rye grass straws would disintegrate and leave a gritty residue in a drink. Plastic straws would later come about and present a further improvement on the structural integrity of the paper straw.

Reverting back to the paper straw may appear to be a step backwards for innovation; however, many other alternatives to plastic have since been invented.

Algae water bottles

Over 30,000 edible drink capsules made from seaweed were handed out to runners at the London Marathon  last month. The Ooho capsules from the design firm Skipping Rocks Lab (WO 2018/172781 A1 ) are biodegradable waterproof pods that can be filled with water or other beverages.

The capsules comprise a cross-linked biopolymer that is extracted from brown seaweed (alginate). Alginate is a valuable natural material and alginate hydrogels have several useful properties; its gelling, film-forming, thickening, stabilising characteristics, as well as biocompatibility and inherent biodegradability make it an attractive alternative to plastic.

The thirsty runners simply grab a capsule and shove it into their parched mouths whereupon the alginate bursts releasing a shot of water; there is no waste at all.

Mushroom packaging

The European Patent Office has recently announced the 15 finalists nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 . Unsurprisingly, multiple finalists were nominated for inventions which tackle the plastic crisis. In particular, US entrepreneurs Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre were nominated for an innovative eco-friendly packaging from mushrooms  (EP2702137 , EP2094856 ).

The eco-friendly packaging from mushrooms is made by inoculating a substrate of discrete particles and a nutrient material with a preselected fungus. The fungus digests the nutrient material and grows, eventually forming a network of interconnected mycelia cells through and around the discrete particles thereby bonding the discrete particles together to form a self-supporting composite material.

Gourd Cups

New York based company ‘The Gourd Project ’ is developing a rather radical alternative to single use polyethylene coated paper coffee cups. They are proposing growing gourds in 3D printed moulds into the shape of beverage vessels. Once harvested and dried, the gourds’ strong outer skin and fibrous inner flesh becomes watertight and can be used as a fully compostable coffee cup.

These environmentally-friendly alternatives to plastic are just a few examples of innovations that could help to end the plastic crisis. 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.

 

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Joanne Pham
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