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EU heads plastic recycling innovation

Europe leads the world in innovation in plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies, according to a report from the European Patent Office (EPO).

The 38 member states covered by the EPO accounted for 30% of patenting activity worldwide in these sectors between 2010 and 2019. This effort, seen as crucial in tackling plastic waste, was matched only by the US – also on 30%. ‘While plastics are essential to the economy, plastic pollution is threatening ecosystems all over the planet,’ says 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.’

The EPO report, ‘Patents for tomorrow’s plastics: Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources’, analyses 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 plastic recycling, the EU27 accounts for 30% of all IPFs.

Bioplastics encompass a broad variety of bio-based, biodegradable and/or compostable plastics and the EU27 are particularly specialised in bio-based modified starch, used as a plant-based alternative to PET, and bio-based rubbers (used for tyres), where they hold a global share of international patent families of 28% and 31%, respectively. The top five EU countries in both plastic recycling and bioplastics are Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

The report also finds that in the chemical and biological recycling fields, research plays a much more significant role than in other plastic recycling technologies, with nearly 20% of inventions originating from universities and public research organisations. The EPO suggests that Europe is not exploiting its full potential when it comes to transferring such technologies to industry.

Campinos concludes: ‘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.’

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