Europe lagging behind Asia in plastic recycling and packaging innovation
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Europe lagging behind Asia in plastic recycling and packaging innovation

Feb 02, 2024

Breakdown of plastic recycling and packaging patent filings (accumulative volume) by country up to 2021

Innovation in the plastic industry is key to shifting to a circular economy. In a new report, research and development tax credit specialist GovGrant analysed how innovation in the plastics industry has evolved from 2001 to 2021. They used the number of global patent fillings relating to plastic packaging and recycling as a unit of measure.

Results show that patent filings were relatively stable between 2001 and 2015, at around 500 per year, with a sharp increase from 2015 onwards, from 607 in 2015 to 1,840 patents in 2021. “Drivers for increased innovative activity may have been a combination of legislative action such as the Paris Agreement and policy initiatives, such as the single use plastic bag charge adopted by various countries, including the UK and France,” the UK-based consultancy said.

The breakdown of patent filings by country paints a picture of Asian hegemony over Europe and the U.S. Up to 2021, the accumulative volume of patent fillings in China was 9,810, or 41,57% of the total, with Japan following with 5,950 patents (25.21%). The U.S. takes third place with 2,250 patents (9.53%), followed by Germany with 2,040 (8.64%), and South Korea with 1,660 patents (7,03%). The remaining countries represented are France (609 patents), the United Kingdom (463), Italy (348), Taiwan (240), and Austria (227). This means that 67,8% of all plastic recycling and packaging innovation is concentrated in Asia.

It is also interesting to note that the top five players account for 91.98% of all filed patents, with France and the UK making a modest contribution at 2.58% and 1.96%, respectively.

In a spotlight on the UK, GovGrant’s research indicates that the top technologies filed within the field of plastic packaging and recycling up to 2021 were rubber composition, with 31 technologies, particles (22), flexible container (20), extrusion (10), polymer composition (10), screw cap (10), and capsule, closure, composite material, and reactor all with seven filled patents.

GovGrant identified biodegradable compositions made from biopolymers, as well as alternative materials made from recycled plastic, as the main improvements in plastic composition. In plastic recycling, novel processes and machinery to recover, separate, and recycling plastic waste were key to progress in the UK industry.

The United Kingdom has recently introduced measures to influence consumer behaviour, including a mandatory charge for single-use plastic bags in large retailers, and a ban on single use plastic items like straws, stirrers, and cotton buds. From October 2023, this measure will be extended to plates, trays, bowls, cutlery, balloon sticks, and certain types of polystyrene cups and food containers. Bringing the UK in line with prevailing legislation in the EU, the ban on these items will include all types of single-use plastic, including biodegradable, compostable and recycled, and items wholly or partly made from plastic, including coating or lining.

“The UK has a role to play in advancing plastic innovation,” Akshay Thaman, IP consultant & policy lead at GovGrant, said in a statement. “We are already world leading at policy implementation to influence consumer behaviour, however, there is work to do on incentivising plastic innovation. For example, the UK omitted plastic innovation from its 10-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution in 2020. If the UK wants to be serious about plastic innovation, it needs to set a plan.”

The UK has also been criticised for deferring its Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rollout to October 2025, a move which was met with frustrated resignation. Industry members have also expressed concerns that some of the country’s policies overfocus on imposing charges rather than truly incentivising change.

“The government are taking gradual steps with their plastic tax and the development of EPR regulations, but these efforts don’t go far enough, as most businesses still find it easier to pay these taxes than improve their methods,” said Raffi Schieir, director of Prevented Ocean Plastic. “The change needs to come at a fundamental business level, based on their own standards and ethos, rather than being dictated by external requirements.”

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