Jennifer Unsworth, Senior associate and patent attorney at Withers & Rogers LLP shares her expertise on the race for innovators to find sustainable polymer-based materials
Polymer innovation, a branch of materials science, has been instrumental in the development of many of the products and technologies we use every day. However, a recent global push to protect the environment has put polymeric materials, or plastics, in the spotlight.
In part, as a result of this increased scrutiny, there has been significant work going on in the field of polymer science in recent years. Innovators are reacting to negative messages in the media about plastic waste and packaging and are focused on finding solutions.
Much of the innovation activity to date is focused on alternative methods for reuse and recycling and there are a number of interesting research projects being undertaken globally, seeking to alleviate some of the burdens of plastic waste. Among these projects, students at MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, are exploring the effects of exposing fine plastic flakes to small amounts of gamma radiation, before crushing them down and mixing them into concrete. This process helps to make concrete more durable at the same time as providing an alternative use for waste material that would otherwise have ended up in a landfill.
Indeed, many of the alternative uses for waste polymers capitalise on the beneficial characteristics of plastics – their light weight, strength and rigidity. In many cases, these characteristics can be honed; allowing for the creation of bespoke materials with a wide range of potential applications.
An example of this is the growing popularity of wood-plastic composites (WPC), which are made from a mixture of wood fibre and thermoplastics, including polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride. These materials are used extensively for applications such as decking, railings, fencing and benches and are sustainable in that they can be made from recycled plastics. Although biodegradability is a consideration, a WPC reaching the end of its useful life can be re-fabricated into new materials, avoiding the need to dispose of it completely.
Polymer manufacturing has for a long time now been intrinsically linked with the petroleum and fossil fuel industry. When crude oil is distilled, various by-products are made and these often find their way into plastic materials. From an environmental perspective, this process is not sustainable – it relies on the use of rapidly-depleting fossil fuels, releases carbon emissions into the environment and the end product is hard to recycle.
In a bid to find a solution to this problem, innovation within the polymer materials space is starting to focus on drop-in or bio-plastics. These products are made from fermented starches, found in materials such as banana skins or peanut kernels.
One example of such a bio-plastic is Floreon, a specially formulated compound that is added to standard bio-plastic polylactic acid in order to create a material that has a sustainable origin and a range of end of life options. The bio-plastic polylactic acid is produced using renewable crops such as corn, tapioca roots, starch or sugarcane. A fully degradable and compostable polyester blend is added to this, to produce an environmentally-friendly plastic that can be used to manufacture drinks bottles and the like.
The developers of Floreon have protected their investment in research and development by filing patent applications that include claims related to the material blend, articles such as bottles made from the compound and specific methods of manufacture or polymer processing using Floreon, for example, injection moulding. To date, patents related to this technology have been granted in Europe, Australia, China and Canada.
In contrast to some bio-plastics, which are compostable and biodegradable, drop-in bio-plastics are fully-recyclable. This means that instead of requiring specialist dedicated recycling facilities, drop-in plastics can be fully integrated into conventional recycling streams, requiring less investment in end-of-life processing facilities.
Compatibility with existing recycling facilities forms a key part of the polymer industry’s push to drive innovation towards a circular economy, with closed recycling loops. Recycled plastic has a reputation for being lower-quality than virgin plastic and so its popularity with consumers has suffered. To tackle this, innovation in the area of bio-plastics is aiming to change this perception by creating an advanced material that once nearing the end of its life, can be recycled readily into something of equivalent quality.
With so much activity going on in this sector, intellectual property (IP) is bound to play a major role in protecting any innovation. Innovators around the world are competing to find viable solutions to the problems posed by widespread plastic use and multi-layered IP rights provide vital commercial protection.
Growing public concern about the environmental impact of plastic waste is encouraging innovators to find new, sustainable polymer-based materials. Based on current trends, the solution lies in developing novel materials that meet consumer expectations as well as being easier to recycle.
Senior associate and patent attorney
Withers & Rogers LLP
Tel: +44 (0)20 7940 3600