Monday, 25 January 2016

Plastics, patents and a platform for innovation

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics offers a fascinating contemporary portrait of an industry that is so large and all-pervasive that we are in danger of being quite unable to see it at all.  This portrait comes in the form of a handsomely-produced 120-page report, published by the pro-environment-by-design Ellen MacArthur Foundation and supported by funding from the conservation-oriented MAVA Foundation.  It envisages a global economy in which plastics never become waste and talks of business-driven multi-industry innovation initiatives to push the world towards the "circular economy" to which it seeks a transition.

Given the centrality of business-driven innovation to the restructuring of plastics with all its ubiquitous facets, it is a little disappointing that relatively impact is placed upon the role of the patent system as a whole, and to the direction in which the environmental sanctity of a threatened planet is currently being taken by owners and applicants for key patents.  To be fair, patents are acknowledged, but only in a minor way. Thus at p. 57, when reviewing marker technology, the report states(with footnotes omitted):
"Another pathway currently being explored is a system in which packaging contains a marker that can be read by sorting machines. This could range from a barcode to invisible chemical markers. Various pieces of information might be embedded in such markers and communicated across the value chain, thereby unlocking new opportunities. Over the last decades, a range of patents has been published on marker chemistry and related instrumentation. Marker-based detection products are used for the security of high-value articles but no marker-based detection system has yet transitioned into widespread use in the recycling industry".  
The EU-funded Polymark project [here] is mentioned as work in progress, and it is noted that chemical marker technology could be used to differentiate various types of plastic items, though industrial-scale tests would still be needed and the detection of multiple markers as ‘binary code’ is yet to be developed.

Also mentioned, at p 91,  is 3D printing, a.k.a. the much-trumpeted technologies of additive manufacturing:
"Cost, speed, and accuracy place limits on widespread adoption but there is little doubt that additive manufacturing is a set of technologies with disruptive potential. The recent expiration of a number of patents is expected to trigger a wave of innovation, and a future of distributed manufacturing is not unimaginable. In this context, the demands on plastic packaging could be significantly different. For example, products travelling shorter distances through fewer (or no) distribution centres would require no packaging, or packaging with greatly reduced protective and storage properties".
A good topic for discussion might be whether it is the availability of patent protection or its expiry that produce greater and more focused incentives for investment and development of new plastic-related products and processes. Further issues to consider might relate to the question of whose patents control the industry as it moves forward, as well as the prospects that environmentally-friendly plastics might afford for the setting of global standards, FRAND licences and even compulsory licensing.

You can read the report in full here.

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