Published this week, the EPO Patents for Tomorrow’s Plastics: Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources study analysed patenting activity worldwide between 2010 and 2019 across all industries in two areas: plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies.
“Patent information provides robust statistical evidence of technical progress. The data presented in this report shows trends in high-value inventions for which patent protection has been sought in more than one country (international patent filings). It highlights technology fields that are gathering momentum and the cross-fertilisation taking place,” the EPO said.
“Trends in circular plastic innovation have never been more important to the sector’s development. Therefore, [the study] provides a guide for policymakers and decisionmakers to direct resources towards promising technologies, assess their comparative advantage at different stages of the value chain and shed light on innovative companies and institutions that may be in a position to contribute to long-term sustainable growth.”
Cosmetics and detergents ‘innovating most intensely’ in bioplastics
Study findings showed health care was “by far the most active” in bioplastics innovation, with more than 19,000 international patent filings over the study period, but cosmetics and detergents were the sectors “innovating most intensely in bioplastics”.
For these two industries, the ratio of international patent filings on bioplastics versus conventional plastics was 1:3, compared to 1:5 in health care. And patent activity was coming from some of industry’s biggest beauty and personal care players, with Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal, Henkel, Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Kao Corp and Amorepacific – in this order – holding the top seven global innovation spots in bioplastics for cosmetics and detergents, based on the number of international patent filings. BASF held eighth spot, followed by Shiseido and Dupont de Nemours.
Packaging, electronics and textiles were also “significant contributors” to innovation in bioplastics, the EPO said.
Globally, and across all industries, chemically modified natural polymers such as modified cellulose generated “the largest share of patenting activities over the last decade” in bioplastics, though polymers from bio-sourced monomers were the “fastest-growing field”, according to the EPO.
“Bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics show potential for enhancing circularity and reducing the carbon emissions generated by the use of conventional fossil raw materials. Patenting activities in these bioplastics took off in the late 1980s and since then have followed a growth trend similar to that of conventional plastics technologies,” according to the study.
Europe and US ‘the main global innovators’ in circular plastics
Considering both bioplastics and plastic recycling, the EPO study showed that, globally, Europe and the US were leading the charge in international patent filings, representing 60% (Europe 30%; US 30%) of all patenting activity across both sectors. The EPO said Europe and the US were “by far the main global innovators in terms of efforts to make the plastics industry circular”.
Within Europe, the UK, France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands were considered stand out and specialised in both fields. Findings showed the US led specialisation in plastic recycling innovation.
In Asia Pacific, Japan demonstrated the most patenting activity across bioplastics and plastic recycling, though along with Korea and China, this market lacked specialisation in these fields, the EPO said.
Plastics recycling has ‘highest level’ of patenting activity
Globally, the EPO study showed patenting activity around plastic recycling was stronger than bioplastic innovations, with chemical and biological recycling methods generating the “highest level of patenting activity” during the review period. There were 9,000 international patent filings related to these plastic recycling methods versus just 4,500 on mechanical recycling – “currently the most commonly used solution to transform plastic waste into new products”, the EPO said.
“While the patenting of standard chemical methods, such as cracking and pyrolysis, reached a peak in 2014, emerging technologies such as biological methods using living organisms (1,500 international patent filings) or plastic-to-monomer recycling (2,300 international patent filings) now offer new possibilities to degrade polymers and produce virgin-like plastics.”
And the EPO said almost 20% of inventions around chemical and biological recycling originated from universities and public research organisations, indicating fundamental research played a much more significant role in this space versus other plastic recycling technologies.
Plastic reusability, recyclability and biodegradability – ‘promising new technologies’
Writing in the study’s foreword, António Campinos, president of the European Patent Office (EPO), said these findings not only offered a “unique source of business intelligence” for decision-makers in government and industry, it also shed light on how innovation, coupled with regulation and cross-border collaboration, could create a “smarter, more sustainable future for plastic-reliant industries”.
“…As the European Commission’s Green Deal to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050 takes shape, helping innovative players to flourish is essential,” Campinos said.
In comments to the press, he said: “This study offers key insights into a range of promising new technologies that foster the reusability, recyclability and biodegradability 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.”