Recycling the way to a greener lifestyle

Over recent years, the number of people opting to recycle at home has plateaued in the UK, or in some cases, even gone into decline.

This could be happening for a number of reasons, ranging from customer confusion as to what can be recycled, to, in some cases, skepticism around whether materials are truly being recycled or not. To help tackle these issues and put home recycling back at the top of society’s agenda, innovators have been working hard to help consumers ‘green up’ their lives.

A growing number of technological solutions to help consumers with domestic waste recycling are app-based. Platforms such as Scrapp use product barcodes to help to tackle uncertainty over which materials can or can’t be recycled. The app utilises a database to understand what type of packaging is used by a product, and advises the consumer based on the result what recycling options there are – if any.  Rubicon Technologies, a US provider of sustainable waste and recycling solutions, have applied for a European patent (EP3679537 A1) which in part relates to an app that allow customers to engage in real-time recycling interactions via their smartphones.  The app allows upload of images of items that would otherwise be going to waste, matching of the items with other customers, and organisation of delivery to facilitate reuse of the item.

However, it is not just app-creators that are hoping to restore consumers’ faith in recycling. Physical technology solutions have also been proposed and include residential recycling systems, such as Lasso Loop. Designed to remove the requirement for multiple recycling bins, the system assesses waste using artificial intelligence (AI), rejecting any non-recyclable objects and then washing, sorting and crushing the recyclable waste. This is a convenient solution for the consumer as it requires minimal sorting, however, the amount of advanced technology required to run the system makes it costly, potentially limiting its mass-market appeal.  Lasso Loop recently had a patent application published in the US, although this relates to the collection of material sorted by their appliance, rather than the appliance itself.

Other physical solutions include services provided by companies such as TerraCycle, which specialises in the collection and reuse of non-recyclable domestic waste. TerraCycle has created a system where brand owners pay a subscription which in turn allows members of the public to take non-recyclable waste that would otherwise be destined for landfill to selected ‘drop-off’ points to be recycled/taken away for processing. Whilst this seems like a simple solution on the surface, it requires a significant commitment on the part of the consumer to sort, save, and then transport waste to a specific location for collection, which could be off-putting to some.

Further recycling innovation is likely to be driven by advancements within smart phone technology. The adoption of image and material recognition software within the camera, potentially boosted through the integration of AI, could see an increase in technologies with the ability to learn, reducing the need for database construction and maintenance.

Whilst there are some innovations for the personal sphere, for now, the majority of innovations are occurring upstream and downstream of the consumer themselves.  These emerging technologies focus on making packaging or products that use fewer materials and are easier to be recycled or re-used.

A recent driver for this is the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, which came into effect from the beginning of 2023, providing increased incentives for packaging materials manufacturers to produce more sustainable solutions. Those packaging companies that develop and patent easy to recycle or lower weight solutions, which are then offered to brand owners and retailers at a premium, while also reducing the brand owner’s EPR liabilities are likely to prosper – a win-win for both parties and the planet. 

Eastman Chemicals recently applied for a patent directed to formable cellulose acetate compositions that can be used to produce low density, compostable packaging for single use applications (WO 2023/003791 A1. Nestle is another company making large steps towards providing sustainable packaging, after recently applying for a patent, which relates to a metallised packaging cardboard material having high barrier properties and being recyclable in the recycling paper stream, thus being suitable for packaging edible liquids such as milk (WO 2022/175433 A1).

There are also efforts to create more efficient recycling processes that recover material for lower costs. This is mostly being driven through the implementation of new picking and sorting technologies that can help to cut down on the amount of manual sorting required and therefore driving costs down while boosting efficiency. An example of a patent application in this space is WO 2022/221680 A1 (Digimarc Corp), which relates to improving the accuracy of sorting waste streams using watermarks, spectroscopy and/or artificial intelligence.

For app-based solutions such as Scrapp, holistic IP strategies are recommended. This may include patents but is more likely to focus on protecting the brand, copyright, knowhow, and database rights through a multi-layered approach. Whilst it can be challenging to secure patents for software-based innovations, it is still possible if applications focus on aspects or methods that are genuinely new and novel and not simply adaptations of known techniques, such as reading barcodes and querying databases, for a particular application.  The key here is to speak to a patent attorney who can judge if the invention is the right side of the line.

Despite the recent stagnation in recycling efforts, it is clear that innovations are still progressing to create a more sustainable future. With efforts concentrated on making sure that recycling is not only easier for the consumer, but that packaging and recycling processes become more sustainable too, consumer interest in home recycling will go from strength to strength.

Paul Foot is a partner and Heather West is an associate at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers.