Photo: Evegreen

Europe is a leading region of innovation in plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies, a new study published today by the European Patent Office (EPO) shows. Europe (referring to the region covered by the 38 member states of the European Patent Convention) accounted for 30 percent of patenting activity worldwide in these sectors between 2010 and 2019. This was matched only by the US, which also accounted for 30 percent.

They are the only major centres of innovation truly specialising in plastic recycling and bioplastics, the two major areas of technological advances in reducing plastic waste, which is one of the main targets of the EU Green Deal.

“While plastics are essential to the economy, plastic pollution is threatening ecosystems all over the planet,” said EPO President António Campinos. “The good news is that innovation can help us to address this challenge by enabling the transition to a fully circular model. This study offers key insights into a range of promising new technologies that foster the reusability, recyclability and bio-degradability of plastic products. It highlights Europe’s contribution to innovation in this sector, but shows that much more can be done to turn pioneering European research into inventions and bring them to market.”

Strength in waste recovery

Entitled Patents for tomorrow’s plastics: Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources, the study presents a comprehensive analysis of the innovation trends for the period 2010 to 2019 that are driving the transition to a circular economy for plastics. The report looks at the number of international patent families (IPFs), each of which represents an invention for which patent applications have been filed at two or more patent offices worldwide (so-called high-value inventions).

Within the field of plastic recycling, the EU27 stand out with a particular strength in waste recovery and mechanical recycling, accounting for 30% of all international patent families (IPFs). Within waste recovery they show a high level of specialisation in technologies related to the collecting and cleaning of plastic waste, accounting for a global share of 32% of IPFs in both areas.

Bioplastics encompass a broad variety of bio-based, biodegradable and/or compostable plastics. Within this field, the EU27 are particularly specialised in biobased modified starch (used for instance as a plant-based alternative to PET, the fourth most commonly used plastic polymer) and biobased rubbers (used for instance in tyres), where they hold a global share of international patent families of 28 percent and 31 percent, respectively.

In terms of the volume of IPFs, the top five EU countries in both plastic recycling and bioplastics are Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium. When comparing a country’s relative number of patents in the two key technologies to its overall number of patent applications, the three most specialised European countries in plastic recycling are Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy, while Belgium, France, and Spain are the most specialised countries in bioplastics.

Untapped potential

The report also finds that in the chemical and biological recycling fields, fundamental research plays a much more significant role than in other plastic recycling technologies, with nearly 20 percent of inventions originating from universities and public research organisations. In terms of geographic location of these universities and public research organisations, Europe and the US have a clear lead, each with 29 percent of those IPFs stemming from research institutions. However, US start-ups and scale-ups generated four times as many IPFs in chemical and biological recycling as their European counterparts (338 v. 84). This suggests that Europe, despite being particularly active in fundamental research, is not exploiting its full potential when it comes to transferring these technologies to industry.

Bioplastic innovation

In the area of bioplastic inventions, the study finds that the healthcare sector has by far the most patenting activity in total (more than 19 000 IPFs in 2010-19), despite accounting for less than 3% of the total demand for plastics in Europe. However, the cosmetics and detergents sector has the largest share of its patenting activity in bioplastics, with the ratio of bioplastics IPFs to conventional plastics IPFs being 1:3, compared with 1:5 in the healthcare sector. Packaging, electronics and textiles are also significant contributors to innovation in bioplastics.

Easier to recycle

Looking ahead, the study shows that the area of alternative plastics that allows for easier recycling has grown exponentially in recent years, with an average annual growth rate of 10% since 2010. These technologies have potential applications in aerospace, construction, transportation, wind turbines and microelectronics. The rapid growth of patenting in these fields is almost entirely driven by innovation in an alternative plastic called dynamic covalent bonding – a method allowing for novel designs of durable plastic materials capable of self- repairing. While Japan has a strong lead in this field, most of the inventions coming from universities and public research organisations in this field originate from European and US research institutions.

Read next: ‘Plastic is not a problem, we just have to deal with it smartly’

Cover photo: Flower pots made of bioplastic, the raw material is delivered in granules and poured into a mould in a factory. Photo: Evegreen

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