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Managing the Complicated Plastic Innovation Landscape: Perspectives from the EPO Patent Report

The increasing amount of plastic garbage in the environment has become a major global concern in the modern landscape. Recent findings from an OECD research paint a disturbing picture of the situation: the amount of managing the complicated plastic waste produced on Earth has doubled in the previous 20 years, and just 9% of this enormous waste is being successfully recycled. The remainder will either be burned, buried in landfills, or, more concerningly, leach into the environment.


The environmental crisis that we face is made even worse by the fact that plastics are present in nearly every industry, including building, transportation, electronics, and cosmetics. Notably, the health industry, which is crucial to the welfare of our society, has depended more and more on plastics. The enormous demand for testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) during the recent global health crisis highlights the critical role that plastics play in preserving public health.


Sifting through the intricate web of problems created by the growing amount of plastic garbage calls for a multidimensional strategy. Regulations, both national and international, are essential tools for reducing the use of single-use plastics and moving society away from the conventional linear plastics economy. In order to successfully implement policy changes and get public support for them, it is important that extensive education programs be implemented concurrently. But the innovation that holds the key to a sustainable future is the beacon of innovation at the center of this revolutionary journey.



The European Patent Office (EPO) carried out a perceptive examination of patent applications in the plastics industry in response to this pressing need. This investigation looked at new developments and trends that might change how we interact with plastics and provide an insight into a more sustainable future.

 

This situation is especially bad because plastics are used in everything from building to transportation to electronics to cosmetics. Notably, the use of plastic has increased in the healthcare industry as a result of the current epidemic, with testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) being particularly dependent on plastic.

 

A multidimensional strategy is needed to address the plastic pollution issue, including worldwide education campaigns, national and international policies, and—most importantly—groundbreaking technology. A thorough examination of plastic industry patent applications by the European Patent Office (EPO) revealed new developments and inventions that may lead to a more sustainable future.


Recycling Innovations: A Crucial Frontier of Managing the Complicated Plastic


In 2018, Europe was only able to recycle approximately one-third of the massive 29.1 million tonnes of plastic waste that it produced. The complexity of post-consumer plastics recycling, especially when it comes to processing mixed plastics, makes the size of this problem even more evident. This group presents a significant challenge since it requires careful cleaning and complex separation before recycling can begin.

 

Realizing how urgent this issue is, innovative advancements in sorting and separating techniques have been the focus of recent advances in the field of managing plastic trash. These developments make use of cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and visual recognition. With the ability to handle the complexity of mixed plastics, these technologies have the potential to completely transform the way we approach plastic recycling.

 

The incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) and optical recognition into recycling operations is emerging as a promising approach to meet the growing demand for sustainable waste management solutions. These technologies help to lessen the pollution that frequently afflicts conventional recycling procedures in addition to improving the speed and accuracy of sorting mixed plastics. The coordinated efforts to make use of these cutting-edge technologies demonstrate a shared dedication to overcome the difficulties presented by mixed plastics and directing the path towards a more effective and sustainable ecosystem for plastic recycling.

 

The realm of recycling methods can be broadly classified into three categories: mechanical, chemical, and biological. While mechanical recycling is the most prevalent currently, chemical and biological recycling methods hold promising opportunities for the future. Chemical recycling, with methods like pyrolysis and depolymerisation, offers scalability and flexibility, addressing challenges posed by problematic waste streams like non-compliant food packaging. Biological recycling involves controlled degradation into compost or monomers, heralding a self-evident environmental advantage.

 

The patent filing trends revealed by the EPO indicate a surge in activities related to chemical and biological recycling methods over the last decade. Surprisingly, the U.S. has emerged as a leader in this field, contributing around 36% of all international patent filings (IPFs), with Europe following closely at 26%. However, despite Europe's dominance in upstream research originating from universities and research organizations, this advantage has not translated into commercial success when compared to the U.S.

Alternative Plastics: Pioneering Sustainable Solutions


The EPO report explores "alternative plastics," which are materials intended to be more recyclable and biodegradable. Plastics made with carbon dioxide and those created from bio-sourced monomers fall into this category.


Biodegradable Polymers:


One prominent field of research is the creation of polymers that facilitate easier recycling. As a game-changer, dynamic covalent bonding is responsible for roughly 68% of IPFs associated with polymers modified for recyclability. This Japanese invention addresses the difficulties in recycling thermoset polymers by offering a reversible cross-linking structure.


Bioplastics, encompassing bio based and biodegradable plastics, have seen steady growth, mirroring trends in conventional plastics. European and U.S. institutions contribute significantly to innovation in bioplastics, each providing about 30% of total IPFs in the sector.


The European Patent Office (EPO) has nominated Prof. Walter Leitner and Christoph Gürtler for the European Inventors Award
Prof. Walter Leitner and Christoph Gürtler

Production of Polymers Using CO2:


The utilization of carbon dioxide as a raw material for polymer synthesis is a promising new direction. The European Patent Office (EPO) has nominated Prof. Walter Leitner and Christoph Gürtler for the European Inventors Award, demonstrating their recognition of the importance of this breakthrough, even if the majority of IPFs in this sector are currently located in the Republic of Korea and Europe.


Wrapping Up: Getting Around the Future


While patent filing data has its limitations, the EPO report serves as a valuable guide to deciphering trends in plastic recycling and alternative plastics. The dominance of the U.S. and Europe in upstream research signifies immense potential, but the challenge lies in translating this research into commercial success. Europe, especially, must capitalize on its research dominance to drive innovations into industry, ensuring long-term economic and environmental benefits. The plastics landscape is evolving, and it's time for collaborative efforts to shape a sustainable future.


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