Packaging industry specialist Huhtamäki develops alternatives to plastic

28.7.2020

Home food delivery services are a megatrend of the last few years, with continued growth even during the exceptional spring of 2020. While this trend has increased the demand of disposable food and beverage packaging, there’s also a growing global concern about climate change and environmental impacts. To respond to these concerns, the packaging industry offers recyclable materials and circular economy. Huhtamäki, a Finnish packaging industry veteran, has been at the forefront of developing alternatives to plastic packaging. The company is also active in the field of IP rights protection, and has protected the look of its packaging by registered designs, packaging related inventions by patents and utility models, and its brand by trademark filings.

You’ve likely read the name “Huhtamäki” on the lid of a takeaway cup, and maybe you’ve even spotted this well-known Finnish name from a cup abroad. Huhtamäki is a hundred-year-old food and beverage packaging specialist and manufacturer operating in 35 countries.

Huhtamäki’s customers include several global pioneering companies in circular economy and sustainable development.

– Trends create new opportunities that a few years ago were still hidden beneath the surface. Now they are rising up, and our customers want to proceed fast with these changes, says Timo Tiilikainen, New Product Development Director, QSR & Beverage Category, at Huhtamäki.

Photo: Huhtamäki Oyj

One billion paper straws in a year

The need for alternative packaging materials has been boosted by the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive, which bans single-use plastic items such as straws and plates. Paper and fiber are very good alternatives to plastic, and Huhtamäki already has significant experience in converting these renewable raw materials to packaging. Now, the company is able to apply this expertise to new products.

– Last year we introduced the paper straw with some of our global customers. It moved fast from a commercial need and idea to mass production, and a year ago we started production at one of our plants. Now, the straws are already in production at several plants in Europe, and we’ve significantly increased the production capacity in a short time, Tiilikainen says.

– Finding substitutes for plastic products is not a simple task, because plastic also has some good features – for example, plastic protects food really efficiently. It’s not always easy to create a non-plastic solution with all the functional features of plastic.

Huhtamäki has a long history of converting fiber and paperboard. The company’s plants in the United States are pioneers in the global fiber industry, and their Chinet fiber plates are a leading retail brand in the USA.

Innovation, design and brand are worth protecting

Photo: Huhtamäki Oyj

As fiber-based food and beverage packaging forms a big part of Huhtamäki’s business, it has been essential to secure the company’s IP rights to these products. The new materials and business areas bring new competitors, also from companies that were not considered competitors before.

– For example with the fiber lids, we saw already ten years ago that there will be growing interest in renewable materials. Fortunately, we protected our inventions back then, because now it’s paying off, Tiilikainen says.

However, Huhtamäki doesn’t aim for IP protection just for its own sake; there should always be a clear business objective, and the rights need to be registered in relevant countries.

The company has protected its packaging materials by patents.

– If you didn’t protect the new look of your packaging or cups by design registrations, they would be freely available to your competitors, without compensation. In other words, IP protection serves to secure your rights to the design innovations in which you have invested a great deal of time and money, explains Irmeli Nokkanen, European Design Attorney and European Trademark Attorney at Papula-Nevinpat, who advises Huhtamäki in design protection matters. She also points out that on a global scale, packaging has always been one of the most popular product categories in design registration applications.

A design registration is an excellent, affordable and efficient tool to combat product imitations, copying, and piracy. Especially the Community design, also called a EU design, which is used by Huhtamäki, is cost-efficient considering its wide geographical coverage. The Community design can also be obtained very quickly, even in a few days.

The IP registrations have proven valuable to Huhtamäki. To evaluate the overall benefits, Tiilikainen says it’s also important to consider if any specific registration has kept out a competitor, in other words, worked preventively. Sometimes the situation may involve significant economic effects, and if necessary, these matters have been settled in court. In most cases, Huhtamäki has been able to secure the freedom to operate.

Competitor tracking prevents disputes and helps to secure the freedom to operate

Today, Asia is the global innovator in the packaging industry. For example in China you can find highly developed food delivery packaging, such as complex lid structures, that are not so popular in Europe.

– Huhtamäki’s local product development operations in China strive to develop solutions to these needs. In general, Asian companies offer solutions that differ from the European products. Also the number of patent applications filed in China, and the number of Chinese patent applications on a global scale, have significantly increased during the last years, says Pirkko Uotila, Patenting Coordinator at Huhtamäki.

The company keeps a close watch on their competitors’ patent, utility model and design registration applications. Before starting a new project, they take an overview of their competitors’ IP rights to avoid disputes.

– The basic profile in our competitor tracking system is quite broad. We monitor the progress of the application processes, and react if necessary, Uotila explains.

Understanding customer’s industry, flexibility and global reach are decisive features in an IP firm

Huhtamäki has been working with Papula-Nevinpat since 2013. Thanks to this long collaboration, Irmeli Nokkanen and European Trademark Attorney Heidi Mikkola, who’s in charge of the company’s trademark matters at Papula-Nevinpat, have become very familiar with their customer’s line of business.

– I appreciate Irmeli’s and Heidi’s expertise. I can always call them if I need advice on designs or trademarks and get a prompt response. I can count on them to find solutions to problems, Uotila comments.

Papula-Nevinpat’s wide international network and strong Russian expertise have also been useful to Huhtamäki, as the company also operates in Russia. They have, for instance, a plant near Moscow.

– In addition to cost-efficiency, we expect our attorney to have an international network of IP agents and an understanding of our industry and products, Tiilikainen adds.

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