As the use of plastic increases, scientists and inventors are looking for ways to get a handle on the problem of plastic waste. Recent patent data points to promising innovations, especially from Europe and the US.
There are currently thousands of different types of plastic available and the lion's share of new plastic soon ends up as waste. As mountains of the used stuff continue to pile up around the world, people are looking for new ways to reduce, reuse and recycle some of it. But getting rid of even a tiny amount of it will be a gargantuan job, especially with the popularity of hard-to-recycle products and single-use plastic.
In 2019, nearly 370 million tons of plastic were produced globally, according to the PlasticsEurope trade association. Most of it was synthesized from oil or natural gas. That's just another reason why many inventors are now tackling the issue in a multitude of ways like making things easier to recycle or even looking for alternatives to conventional plastics altogether.
Currently, the US and Europe are tied for the number of recycling-related and bioplastic technology patents, according to a study released Tuesday by the European Patent Office (EPO). Combined they account for 60% of global patents between 2010 and 2019 to make the plastic industry more circular.
This may seem like old data, but since patent applications are often filed years before products or processes actually appear for consumers, such information can be a good indicator of things to come. And what the EPO sees is growing innovation in recycling and alternative plastics.
Where are the ideas coming from?
EPO President Antonio Campinos shares this enthusiasm for a brighter future with less plastic pollution without resorting to outright bans.
"The good news is that innovation can help us to address this challenge by enabling the transition to a fully circular model," he said in a press release accompanying his agency's report.
In Europe in the past decade, Germany was most active in both plastic recycling and bioplastic technology patents, followed by the UK, the Netherlands and Italy. Looking closer, the authors of the EPO report see that absolute numbers are not everything, though.
"Within Europe, France, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium stand out for their specialization in both plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies. Although it posted the highest share of IPFs [international patent families] due to its larger economy, Germany lacked specialization in these fields," noted the report.
IPF is an industry term and means a single invention that has been filed at several patent offices, making it more likely to be something truly innovative and therefore worthwhile to count. Outside of Europe and the US, Japan brought in about 18% of these patents, while South Korea and China are both far behind with only about 5% each.
Plain recycling is no longer plain
At its most fundamental level, the number of patents worldwide dealing with improving basic mechanical recycling has gone up for years. Indeed, it is still the simplest and most common way to turn plastic waste into something new. Since the early 1990s, the number of patents to make things easier to recycle has also increased greatly to make that job easier.
But in the last decade, chemical and biological recycling methods have taken over patent activity. They now account for twice as many patents as traditional mechanical recycling methods. These chemical methods work by breaking the plastic into its chemical elements, which can then be reused. On the downside, these methods are often more energy-intensive.
Another option, though less explored, is biological recycling. As the name suggests, this method uses living organisms to turn plastic into compost.
The report acknowledges Europe's excellence in fundamental research in chemical and biological recycling but complained about a lack of entrepreneurial spirit to get these new ideas to the market. The continent must better exploit what it has by taking these ideas from universities and other research institutes and bringing them to the industry. Up until now, they have been well behind their successful American counterparts.
Don't forget the easy parts
Besides investigating recycling, the report also highlights a big increase in patent applications for alternatives to fossil fuel-based plastics. Manufacturing these alternatives generates fewer carbon emissions and are either biobased or biodegradable. Here the health care, packaging, cosmetic, detergent, electronics and textile sectors were at the forefront of innovation.
Yet with all these innovations, most plastic is nonetheless simply discarded. While in Europe well over 50 million tons of plastic were produced last year, "25 million tons of plastic waste went into landfill and up to 23 million tons of waste could have gone into rivers, lakes and oceans," warned the report.
No matter how fancy the technology gets or how much packaging is reduced, plastic will not go away any time soon. Making things biodegradable or easier to take apart is great progress. But whatever the future holds, the basics of recycling are still important. Simple technology will continue to play a role to better collect, sort, separate and clean plastic in a world flooded with it.