Nurturing green technologies for a post-plastics era

With the current atmosphere of renewed efforts and motivation to minimise our impact on the natural environment, plastics are in the spotlight. Plastics crop up regularly in our daily lives, particularly in the packaging of the food, drinks and other consumer products that we use. The durability of the polymers that make them so convenient for packaging is one property that has made them so problematic for the environment. Increasingly, eco-friendly alternatives are emerging, such as compostable takeaway containers and plant-derived, biodegradable polymers.

The demand exists for eco-friendly packaging materials and certainly it is a broad market. Consumer awareness is high, with recent initiatives in England such as the charge for plastic bags, and with coffee shops offering discounts for bringing a reusable cup. What can emerging innovators in this technology do with intellectual property to establish and nurture a position in this competitive area?

It can be a struggle to feel philosophical about the chemical wonders of the cup containing our morning coffee, but such products in fact involve many steps of innovation. There is engineering at every stage: from the chemical processes that enable raw materials (including up-cycled “waste” materials) to be made into a feedstock product, to the materials and design choices taken for a product, the chemical processes that turn a feedstock material into a component, the combination of components that make a consumer product, and lastly the recycling of the product – perhaps even back to the initial processing steps.

With so many layers of innovation in the eco-friendly technology arena, new entrants to the market can benefit from making a critical overview of the intellectual property that is built into their products. An intellectual property strategy that is fully aligned with a company’s commercial goals can help to build up the reputation of both the product and the company, particularly with unfamiliar, disruptive technologies such as eco-friendly alternatives to plastic. The appearance of a here-today-gone-tomorrow product can be economically protected via design rights, whereas patent protection can help justify the investment in setting up new chemical processing facilities. With so much consumer interest in eco-friendly packaging, new entrants should also consider the importance of branding when bringing new products to market.

A valuable intellectual property strategy for emerging technologies in the packaging and plastics replacement areas can be further enhanced by being savvy about the position, both commercially and geographically, of competitors. For example, the question of where patent protection can add most value can be partly answered by considering the location of competitors and their manufacturing facilities, as well as of the end users. Being competitor savvy is, of course, also important from a freedom to operate perspective – a company may decide not to pursue patent or trade mark protection, but has one of their competitors done so, which may block others?

A solid IP strategy can be a valuable asset to help establish and nurture green technologies that have the promise of lessening our impact on the environment.

As both qualified chemists and highly experienced patent attorneys, GJE’s Chemistry team is best positioned to help ensure your business enjoys a safe and successful future. For more information on how GJE can can help you, please contact us via chemistry@gje.com.