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Decomposing the facts on plastic waste

We are gearing up towards a green industrial revolution. Climate change and other environmental pressures are driving out fossil fuel reliant products (and processes), instead encouraging the development and use of environmentally friendly alternatives. World Environment Day is a UN initiative founded to increase awareness of global environmental issues. Today is its 50th anniversary and this year’s theme puts the spotlight on plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution refers to the accumulation of plastic waste in the environment. The impact of plastic waste has been subject to increased media attention in recent years, particularly due to the high carbon intensity of traditional plastic production, and the long-term persistence of traditional plastic products.

The UK Government estimates that the UK population uses around 5 million tonnes of plastic every year, half of which relates to packaging, which is more than double the amount of plastic used in the year 2000.

Now, not all plastic is bad, and plastic should not be completely associated with being bad. The use of plastics is vital in a number of industries and provides an important contribution to the way we live our lives. For example, in the field of medicine, the use of plastics is important as it is an easy material to clean and sterilise. Its durability and light weight makes it ideal for use in medical devices and prosthetics, improving the quality of life for many.

UK Government policy

In recent years, the UK Government has identified the use of single-use plastics as a source of avoidable waste. In an attempt to eradicate avoidable waste, the Government published its ‘25-year plan to improve the environment’ in 2018, the strategy contains ambitious targets to:

  • Achieve zero avoidable waste by 2050; and
  • To eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042.

Recently, several policies have been implemented to position the UK toward achieving these targets, the policies are primarily behavioural in nature and include (but are not limited to):

  • A mandatory charge for single-use plastic bags in large retailers.
  • A ban on single use plastic items comprising of plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds. From October 2023, this will be extended to plastic plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers.
  • A Plastic Packaging Tax applied to plastic goods manufactured or imported with less than 30% recycled plastic.

Now, policy changes can only get you so far, innovation will have a complimentary role to play in reducing the impact of plastic waste globally. Patent data is a great source of information that can be utilised to identify and monitor technology trends over time. It is a powerful resource used by many top global innovation and technology players to analyse and predict innovative activity within a technology area. In this article, I will briefly use patent data to illustrate past innovative activity related to plastic packaging and recycling.

Innovation activity over time

Figure 1 shows the number of patent filings relating to plastic packaging and recycling from 2001-2021.

Patent filings can give a good indication of the level of innovation in a particular technology area. This graph demonstrates that patent filings were relatively stable between 2001 and 2015, eventually leading to an upsurge in filings from 2015 onwards. Drivers for increased innovative activity may have been a combination of legislative action such as the Paris Agreement and policy initiatives, such as the single use plastic bag charge adopted by various countries, including the UK and France.

Innovation by country

Figure 2 shows a breakdown of patent filings (accumulative volume) by country up to 2021. This gives a geographical representation of where inventions related to plastic packaging and recycling are being developed. It is worth noting that filings from China tend to top the charts for most technology areas, as of data in 2021, China accounts for approximately half of all patent applications filed globally in that year.

The UK comes in at no.7 for plastic packaging and recycling, although they may be amongst the top filers, this suggests that the UK could do more to become world leaders in this area.

Technologies developed in the UK

Figure 3 shows the top technologies filed in the UK (by accumulative volume) within the field of plastic packaging and recycling up to 2021. The technologies described in the chart above can be summarised by the following categories:

Improvements in plastic composition, including:

  • Biodegradable compositions made from biopolymers.
  • Alternative materials made from recycled plastic.

Improvements in plastic recycling, including:

  • Novel processes and machinery to recover, separate and recycle plastic waste.

Improvements in plastic products such as bottles and containers, including:

  • Recyclable plastic products.
  • Biodegradable plastic products made from the use of a biodegradable polymer composition.

The technologies listed above all attempt to reduce the persistence of plastic products, enabling plastics to better decompose or be recycled. The data above also suggests that novel technical solutions to this problem are likely to be eligible for patent protection in the UK.

Green Channel

Interestingly, the UK’s Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) launched a scheme to incentivise the development of green technologies in the UK through implementing the Green Channel in 2009. The Green Channel allows for an accelerated application process, provided that the technology you wish to patent offers an environmental benefit. The acceleration can dramatically reduce the time taken from application to granted patent. Usually a typical patent application takes, on average, approximately 3 years to grant, the Green Channel can reduce this to lower than 18 months.

The Green Channel can provide a useful tool for environmentally beneficial innovations that require a quick grant for investment purposes or are looking to immediately market your solution. GovGrant has helped clients utilise the benefits of the Green Channel, contact us if this may be of interest to you.

What does this tell us about the future direction of plastic waste innovation?

Well, the increased policy measures to curb avoidable plastic waste, coupled with the increase in innovative activity in this area, suggests that there is political and societal pressure for novel solutions. The increase in innovative activity also suggests that this is becoming an increasingly competitive market and one that is still developing.

I believe that plastic production is here to stay, however, improving the way we manage plastic waste is the key to achieving a circular economy and sustainability.

About Akshay Thaman | IP Consultant & Policy Lead

Akshay works closely with Source Advisors’ clients to uncover IP that may be hidden within their businesses. As a Member of the British Patent Information Professionals group (BPIP) he brings academic rigour and commercial experience to his role as IP Consultant & Policy Lead.
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