Plastic is prevalent in all areas of society, as is the growing awareness of its environmental impact. There is a desperate need to reshape our relationship with plastic – sourcing starting materials more sustainably and feeding them into a circular plastics economy. Achievement of this aim requires the development of new technologies.
A recent EPO report, “Patents for tomorrow’s plastics” gives an excellent snapshot of how innovators are rising to meet this challenge. To explore innovation in the area, the EPO have used the number of international patent families (IPFs) related to green plastic technology, to examine where and in which areas of technology inventions are being made, with analysis broken down into two main areas - plastic recycling and alternative plastics.
Plastic recycling includes waste recovery, i.e. gathering, cleaning, and sorting waste plastic, traditional mechanical plastic-to-product recycling, and chemical and biological recycling. This therefore covers a broad range of technologies, from optical recognition and AI through to biological engineering. Within this category, it was found that chemical and biological recycling is the focus of the largest amount of innovation, with twice as many IPFs as conventional plastic-to-product recycling filed between 2010 to 2019.
The largest contribution towards innovation in plastic recycling stemmed from the US and Europe (taken to be all 38 contracting states of the European Patent Convention), with 31% and 30% percent of all IPFs in this area. Interestingly, the US contributed more to chemical and biological recycling whereas Europe contributed a greater amount towards waste recovery and plastic-to-product recycling.
Alternative plastics encompasses bio-based plastic materials and plastics which are biodegradable or compostable, as well as plastics designed for easier recycling. Again, the US and Europe were found to be the largest contributors to alternative plastics with a 30% and 31% share of IPFs respectively.
The EPO report also includes some interesting analysis contextualising green plastics innovation efforts against the broader innovation capacity of different countries. Overall, the US and Europe show the strongest focus on innovation in green plastics technologies in circular plastics technology.
Looking at innovation in Europe in more detail, Germany accounts for the largest share of green plastics innovation, with around 8% of the overall contribution. However, the report notes that this is due to an overall larger innovation capacity in Germany, rather than a particular specialisation in either plastic recycling or bioplastics. On the other hand, whilst the contribution of the UK to overall filing numbers is lower, at roughly 3%, it appears that more of the UK’s innovative efforts are specialised around green plastics, with UK-based Unilever being highlighted as one of the biggest contributors to bioplastic innovations.
Legislative incentives for plastic innovation
It is interesting to view Europe’s comparatively large contribution towards plastic innovation in the context of legislative incentives over the same period. For example, the 2008 Waste Framework Directive came into force just over a year before the scope of the EPO study. Amongst other proposals, it required member states to establish waste prevention programmes, including promoting research and development into less wasteful products. More recently, the EU’s Single Use Plastic Directive’s mandate to increase use of recycled plastic, and the European Green Deal agreed in 2019, continue to raise the bar higher for innovators and industry in waste recovery. Against this backdrop, it is noteworthy that Europe contributed 36% of IPFs this area.
The EPO report also looked at the type of applicants on the IPFs. Universities and public research organisations contributed more to chemical and biological recycling (19% of IPFs in the area) than waste recovery (7%) or plastic-to-product recycling (7%), which are more established and industry driven. A vast majority of these are from US and European entities. In particular, the report highlights the large contribution of European universities and public research organisations to developments in chemical and biological plastic recycling. Over the past decade Europe has placed a huge emphasis on driving innovation in plastics technologies, providing €350 million of funding since 2014 as part of the Horizon 2020 programme. The UK has created a Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging challenge program which will provide £60 million for academic research into plastic waste, with additional £149 million from industrial investment.
The route to a more sustainable future
The report suggests that despite Europe’s leading early research capabilities, it struggles to scale-up innovative ideas through to commercial realisation – reflected in the much lower filing rate from start-ups compared to the US. It is hoped that this surprising observation is examined further by decision makers, so that legislative and funding efforts in Europe follow through to actual real-world commercialisation and environmental benefits.
The EPO’s report provides an excellent map of the green plastics innovation landscape. It should prove useful not just to innovators, but also policy and decision makers, to understand where we currently stand and to help chart a course to a more sustainable future.
This blog was originally published in Intellectual Property Magazine.
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