Plastic is great. It’s cheap, strong, lightweight, durable, waterproof, doesn’t break down easily… the list goes on. Its diverse range of properties lends itself to many applications. However, the exceptional durability of plastic is something of a double edged sword. In order to meet the high demand for plastic we produce over 300 million tonnes of it per year, much of which ends up in landfill, the oceans and even our bodies.
So, how can we mitigate this problem of plastic pollution when plastic has nestled itself so deep into our lives?
Many say we need to fundamentally rethink the way we design, use, and reuse plastic. This is what a circular plastics economy is all about.
Circular plastics economy
A circular plastics economy is an economic system with a regenerative approach. It aims to eliminate plastic waste through the circulation and continual use of plastic – a plastic loop. In other words, it’s a system where plastic never becomes waste. It involves both limiting the amount of plastic that enters the loop, and keeping any plastic that has entered the loop in the loop. This is mostly through reusing and recycling.
Sounds simple enough. But, can we achieve a circular plastics economy? Not without awareness and innovation.
The New Plastics Economy is a global initiative, led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, with a commitment to unite key stakeholders to rethink and redesign the future of plastic. The initiative argues that the current “linear” economy of “take-make-waste” is unsustainable and sets out the action needed to shift to a circular plastics economy instead. The initiative has united over 850 organisations through its vision for a circular economy for plastic supported by three key actions: eliminate, innovate, circulate.
Eliminate – Designing out plastic
Limiting the amount of plastic that we generate is the best way to eliminate plastic waste, it’s something of a no-brainer. To do so we need alternative materials that are able to perform the same function as plastic. As mentioned above, plastic is very versatile; therefore, innovation is key to designing alternative materials that can compete with plastic.
In our previous blog, we wrote about such materials: from algae water capsules that were handed out to runners at the London Marathon 2019 to packaging made from mushrooms which was nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019.
However, sometimes it is difficult to design out plastic, due to the material properties that are required for a certain product. Then, if we can’t avoid plastic, we should at least design the product such that it is recyclable.
Innovate – Designing for recyclability
An example of an innovation designed for recyclability is the CORRETTO™ cups (see WO 2019/025274 A1) by UK based company Bockatech. The cups are both reusable and recyclable and are designed to replace single use plastic-lined paper coffee cups.
While plastic-lined paper coffee cups may sound environmentally friendly, since it contains paper, there are many issues with them when it comes to recycling. Paper coffee cups need a lining, typically plastic, to make it waterproof. While this does not render them non-recyclable, it does make recycling them very difficult. The plastic lining needs to be separated from the paper cup in order for them to be recycled. However, there are not many recycling facilities in the UK that are able to do this. As a result, most plastic-lined paper coffee cups end up in landfill.
The CORRETTO™ cups are made only from polypropylene, making them easily recyclable, since there is no need for any material separation. However, without the corrugated paper normally found in plastic-lined paper coffee cups, how are the CORRETTO™ cups adequately heatproof?
The CORRETTO™ cups feature walls comprising a foamed polypropylene layer. This not only provides the cups with good thermal insulation properties, it also provides the cups with a rigidity suitable for a coffee cup.
At first sight a wholly plastic product replacing a partially plastic product may seem counterproductive towards tackling the plastic problem, but sometimes this may be the solution to achieving a circular plastics economy where there is no plastic waste.
Circulate – Consumer behaviour
The benefits of any innovation will only be realised if they are readily adopted by the public. As such, with any innovation, consideration has to be given to consumer behaviour.
Even here, technology is being used to help encourage us to recycle. In the Italian Renaissance city of Lucca, the local waste collection company Sistema Ambiente SpA is using passive RFID tags on waste containers and even individual bin bags. The RFID tags are read by a reader on the garbage truck when the waste is collected. This allows the company to keep track of the amount of waste produced by each household and, critically, how much of it is recyclable. The households are then billed for the waste collection on this basis, thereby encouraging users to cut waste and spend time sorting their waste for recycling.
We also previously wrote about a recent funding competition for projects on sustainable plastic solutions with a particular emphasis on changing human behaviour. Click here to find out more.
Have you closed the loop? If you would like advice on protecting your innovation to help us move to a circular economy, or any other innovation, please get in touch.
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.