Intellectual property could be the key to success in plastics

Written by: Ash Earl | Published:
2019 could see lots of new innovations enter the market

The PET plastic bottle is an old technology, but is ubiquitous for a reason. It has a lot of advantageous qualities: it’s cheap, durable and easily moulded into different shapes.

However, the shortcomings in its suitability for recycling are well-documented. Along with other plastic products, the plastic bottle’s negative impact on the environment has come under particular scrutiny in recent months.

In November, the chair of the UK Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, called the UK’s recycling system 'out of date' and argued for a complete 'overhaul', especially when it comes to the use and reuse of plastics.

This view mirrors a pointed shift in public opinion, largely prompted by the media and shows such as Blue Planet II, which also drew attention to the environmental impact of plastic.

The plastic bottle is central to this debate, given it has a lifespan of up to five times the life of the average British resident.

It makes for an especially interesting case study for the recycling industry because of the complexity around its reusability. At many recycling centres, plastic bottles are currently shredded, melted down into small pellets and sold on.

However, brands’ reluctance to use white or clear packaging means that there is an overabundance of coloured plastic, which is not easily recycled into other materials. Consequently, the recycling loop is effectively broken.

This issue is compounded by the fact that there is an inherent downward quality spiral of recycled PET - even for white or clear plastics - which means many consumer plastics cannot be made into a like-for-like replication of the original product. There is, therefore, clearly a demand for innovation to disrupt the dominance of the plastic bottle.

Greater opportunities

While this is a sociological and environmental concern, it is important to remember that this is also an opportunity for innovative new products coming onto the market. When most people think of recycling, they think of green bins and bottle banks, but few think of the commercial elements that take place behind the scenes.

Recycling is a competitive market in its own right, with its own business incentives and challenges like any other. It’s important to keep this in mind because there will be competing innovations looking to determine the future of recycling. Which ones are successful will, realistically, be determined by economic as well as ideological factors.

While there are already many ideas for addressing the issues of plastic bottles, three strands of innovation catch the eye.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, strand of innovation relates to inventions that can act as a substitute for the material used to make the plastic bottle. Ooho, which uses seaweed extract to create sustainable packaging, is a good example.

Not only do Ooho’s products have the benefit of being biodegradable, they also have additional advantages over the traditional plastic bottle, such as being flexible and edible.

Another viable option is innovation that improves the process of recycling the plastic bottle. For example, British firm Recycling Technologies has created a patented machine that is capable of converting all flexible plastics into crude oil.

Not only could this potentially improve the reusability of plastic bottles, but it could also tap into a new market of the petrochemical industry for the by-product of recycled material. This commercial path may make it a more attractive option for private and public investment alike.

Finally, there are inventions that can degrade or destroy plastic. For example, the plastic-eating enzyme PETase, discovered two years ago in sludge nearby a recycling plant in Japan.

PETase breaks down PET within days and could potentially be produced on an industrial scale to enable plastics to be reused more effectively.

Which of these three paths has the most success may well come down to the commercial viability of the innovation, which is often dependent on identifying inventions and obtaining intellectual property to protect the invention.

The ability to own and protect an invention is what fundamentally underpins the value of most innovations and should be central to the business strategy of new entrants to the recycling and waste management markets.

A significant amount of effort and financial investment is required to bring new innovations to market. Akin to a break in a recycling loop, in the absence of intellectual property to safeguard investment, competitors may copy innovations, reducing the funds that the innovators can obtain and recycle into their innovations.

While copying of an innovation may be an indicator of success for some companies, to remain successful they need to be economically sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.

The plastic bottle may appear to be a simple product, but it alone will be the subject of numerous patents. Similarly, alternative products and technologies may have numerous inventive components, each of which may be applicable for patent protection.

Each patentable component may effectively increase the value of the innovation, and it is therefore crucial that as new inventions are devised, they are captured and protected. Companies must develop a robust intellectual property strategy as part of their overall business strategy.

Whether these emerging technologies and solutions will overhaul the ecological burden of the plastic bottle is yet to be seen, and this is only one very small sector of the overall waste management and recycling industry.

What the plastic bottle shows us is the role that innovation and intellectual property strategy could play in successfully bringing new alternatives to market. Following the success and failures of these innovations, there will be lessons to be learnt in how to commercialise products to disrupt other areas of the recycling and waste management market. My advice for the challenge: put intellectual property at the heart of your business.

Ash Earl is from IP law firm Gill Jennings and Every

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