There are thousands of different types of plastic today and the lion’s share of the new plastic will soon end up in the trash. As mountains of used material pile up around the world, people are looking for new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle some of it. Getting rid of even a tiny amount of it will be a daunting task, especially given the popularity of hard-to-recycle products and single-use plastics.
According to the PlasticsEurope trade association, almost 370 million tons of plastic were produced worldwide in 2019. Most of it was synthesized from petroleum or natural gas. This is one of the reasons why many inventors deal with the topic in a variety of ways, for example to make recycling easier or even to look for alternatives to conventional plastics. Technology is key.
According to a new study published Tuesday by the European Patent Office (EPA), the US and Europe are on par on the number of patents in recycling and bioplastics technology. Together, they account for 60% of global patents between 2010 and 2019 to make the plastics industry more circular.
This may seem like old data, but since patent applications are often filed years before products or processes actually appear to consumers, such information can be a good indicator of the future. And what the EPA sees is growing innovation in recycling and alternative plastics.
Plastic bags and straws have been the focus of many single-use plastic bans around the world
Where do the ideas come from?
EPA President Antonio Campinos shares this enthusiasm for a better future with less plastic pollution with no direct bans. “The good news is that innovation can help us meet this challenge by enabling the transition to a fully circular model,” he said in a press release on his agency’s report.
In Europe, Germany has been most active in both plastics recycling and bioplastics technology patents over the past decade, followed by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Italy. However, on closer inspection, the authors of the EPO report find that absolute numbers are not everything.
“Within Europe, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium stand out for their specialization in both plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies. Although it had the highest percentage of IPFs [international patent families] Due to its larger economy, Germany lacked specialization in these areas, “the report said.
IPF is an industry term meaning a single invention that has been filed with multiple patent offices, which makes it more likely that it is something really innovative and therefore worth counting. Outside of Europe and the US, Japan earned about 18% of these patents, while Korea and China are far behind with only about 5% each.
Simply recycling is no longer easy
At the most basic level, the number of patents worldwide dealing with improving basic mechanical recycling has been increasing for years. In fact, it’s still the easiest and most common way to turn plastic waste into something new. Since the early 1990s, the number of patents to simplify recycling has also risen sharply to make this work easier.
But in the past decade, chemical and biological recycling processes have taken over patents. Today they account for twice as many patents as traditional mechanical recycling processes. These chemical methods work by breaking the plastic down into its chemical elements, which can then be reused. On the other hand, these methods are often more energy-intensive.
Another, albeit less explored, option is biological recycling. As the name suggests, this method uses living organisms to turn plastic into compost.
The report recognizes Europe’s excellence in basic research in chemical and biological recycling, but deplores a lack of entrepreneurship to bring these new ideas to market. The continent needs to make better use of what it has by bringing these ideas to industry from universities and other research institutes. So far they have lagged far behind their successful American counterparts.
Don’t forget the easy parts
In addition to examining recycling, the report also highlights a sharp increase in patent applications for alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics. The manufacture of these alternatives produces fewer carbon emissions and is either bio-based or biodegradable. Here the sectors of health, packaging, cosmetics, detergents, electronics and textiles were at the forefront of innovation.
But with all these innovations, most of the plastic is simply thrown away. While more than 50 million tons of plastic were produced in Europe last year, “25 million tons of plastic waste were dumped and up to 23 million tons could have ended up in rivers, lakes and oceans,” warns the report.
No matter how fancy the technology gets or how much packaging is reduced, plastic will not go away anytime soon. Making things biodegradable or easier to take apart is a huge step forward. But whatever the future holds, the basics of recycling are still important. Simple technologies will continue to play a role in better collecting, sorting, separating and cleaning plastic in a world that is flooded with it.