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Patent Trends in Plastic Recycling and Alternative Plastics


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently caused a stir when he announced to a room full of schoolchildren that recycling plastic ”doesn’t work” (reported here).  The PM’s comments upset some, but he did have a point.  According to Sian Sutherland, A Plastic Planet co-founder, “less than 10% [of plastic waste] is actually recycled in the UK.  Despite being touted by industry as a solution to the problem, all it has done is justify overproduction” (reported here).

The PM was acknowledging that diligently sorting your rubbish into the correct bin is simply not enough.  The uncomfortable truth is that the technology is currently not there to recycle the majority of the plastic waste we generate.  Eliminating, or at least reducing, the amount of plastic waste in the first place would be a far more effective way to keep plastic out of our landscapes and oceans; the eco-mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle” is in that order for a reason.

But Mr Johnson should also acknowledge that eliminating plastic waste altogether is simply not practical.  An ideologically sound ambition, but lacking realpolitik.  Plastic is still the only suitable material for a huge number of applications.  So while plastic remains so ubiquitous, what progress is being made to make sure we can recycle it?

Last month the European Patent Office published an insightful study entitled “Patents for tomorrow’s plastics”.  In the study, patent filing data were used to track trends in several technical fields associated with recycling plastics (read the full study here).  The study includes a number of key findings:

US & Europe Lead the Way

Part of the study looked at the number of patent families filed between 2010 and 2019 which related to plastic recycling and alternative plastics.  The study found that about 30% of filings relating to each of plastic recycling and alternative plastics originated from each of the US and Europe.  This compares to just 5% of filings for each technology area originating from China.  In addition, the study calculated the share of filings in the relevant tech categories for each country, divided by the share of patent families for all tech sectors, to produce a “revealed technological advantage” (RTA) index.  An RTA of >1 indicates a country considered to specialise in plastic recycling.  Of the major jurisdictions covered, the US presented as having a strong specialisation in both plastic recycling (RTA = 1.52) and alternative plastics (RTA = 1.43).  Interestingly, Belgium appears to put a greater emphasis on plastic recycling than any other nation with an RTA of 2.44 for plastic recycling filings and 2.07 for alternative plastics.

Chemical and Biological Recycling

The study also looked at three key tech areas within plastic recycling; mechanical recycling, waste recovery, and biological and chemical recycling.  Of these three areas, biological and chemical recycling appears to be the most active by some distance, with over 9000 filings between 2010 and 2019 compared to about 4500 each for mechanical recycling and waste recovery.  Nine out of the top 10 most prolific filers in biological and chemical recycling were oil and gas companies, with Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a subsidiary of state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco, topping the list with 309 filings.  Chemical recycling techniques include cracking, gasification and pyrolysis, to decompose recovered plastics into shorter monomers.  Similarly, biological methods typically employ enzymes or living organisms to degrade polymers into monomers.  The aim is for these monomers to be indistinguishable from virgin plastic allowing for a limitless number of reuse cycles.  While these technologies are not commonplace at present, the scale of the innovation in this field suggests everyday use of these techniques may not be far off.

University vs Industry

The study’s authors were able to estimate how well established certain technologies were based on the share of filings from universities and other research institutions compared to filings from industry.  For example, just 7.4% of applications between 2010 and 2019 directed to waste recovery were from universities, indicating that this field relies on standard, well established technology.  By contrast, 19.3% of filings directed to chemical or biological recycling originated in universities, suggesting that more fundamental research is taking place in this field.  US and European universities account for the majority of filings by research institutions.  Indeed, European research institutions filed more applications directed to chemical or biological recycling than European private companies.  This trend was reversed in both the US and Japan where industry led the way, suggesting that Europe may be struggling to capitalise on the strong innovation originating from its universities.


The study considered a “bioplastic” to be “all plastics that are either bio-based and/or biodegradable”.  They include plastics made using agricultural waste as well as those made using microorganisms, and all plastics which are able to biodegrade, even if the biodegradation requires specific conditions.  The study found patent filings relating to bioplastics have increased in line with patent filings for conventional plastics, suggesting that the proportion of R&D dedicated to bioplastics has remained stable over the past 50 years.  Of the biopolymers considered, modified cellulose was the subject of the most patent families, while polymers from bio-source monomers was the fastest growing field.  The study also found that the healthcare sector was responsible for the most bioplastic filings with big names like Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis featuring in the top ten list of filers.

A Cracking Start – Refinement Needed

Based on this study, it seems that the innovation needed is there, and is moving in the right direction.  It should not be a choice between reducing our plastic use, and recycling a greater proportion when we do use it, we clearly need to do both.  Prime Minister Johnson would do well to note the advice of 19th century pragmatic German statesman Otto von Bismarck who famously said “politics is the art of the possible, the attainable… the art of the next best”.  When it comes to plastic recycling, what is possible is getting better every day.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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