Date: 19 October 2021
Today the European Patent Office published its landmark report into patent filing activity in the plastics industry. Coming at a time when the industry is coming under increasing scrutiny for the role its products are playing in the pollution of marine and terrestrial environments, the report provides a nine year snapshot of data into patent filing activities in the key area of the creation of a truly circular plastics industry, and highlights the main technical and geographical areas where innovation is taking place.
The report highlights some startling statistics on the plastics industry generally, including its history. It is generally known, for example, that prior to about 1940 there was no plastics industry because industrial plastics as we know them today did not exist. But the report tells us that since the 1950s, growth in plastics production has increased at a faster rate than any other manufactured material. An estimate of the total weight of plastics produced since then numbers in the billions of tonnes. In 2019, Europe alone produced 50.7 million tonnes of plastics (but that only accounts for about 16% of worldwide production).
In Europe the largest user of plastics materials is Germany where demand exceeds that of the next largest user by a factor of 2. Also referenced is a report by Plastics Europe, Europe’s association of plastics manufacturers, which reveals that of the approximately 50M tonnes of plastic materials produced in Europe, almost 40% is used by the packaging industry.
The purpose of the EPO’s report appears to be to shine a light on the main areas of innovation in the world of plastics to see where innovation is taking place. The hope presumably being that innovators are addressing the huge environmental problems caused by plastic waste to help with the creation of a truly circular economy for plastics. To do this they have identified two broad categories of innovation in plastics, namely, Plastic Recycling and Alternative Plastics. There is an interesting “patent cartography” in Annex 2 that shows what is included in these broad headings. Rather than use straight patent application numbers, the authors have used what are termed “IPFs”, or international patent families, which are stated to be a more reliable and neutral proxy for inventive activity.
The filing statistics in the report are very extensive – there has clearly been a large amount of analysis work done – and broadly speaking the conclusions are clear. Europe and the US lead the world in EPO patent filings in these key areas and between the two broad categories, Plastic Recycling has seen the largest number of filings. About 20% of these come from academia and publicly funded research organisations. Within the Alternative Plastics, it is interesting to see that patenting activity in the field of bioplastics has been at a similar level to that of conventional plastics since as early as the 1980s, with conventional plastics patenting actually exceeding it from the early noughties, which is surprising.
As a source of information for decision makers in both the public and private sectors this report should be an invaluable tool in highlighting the level of innovation and the direction that innovators are following in seeking to transform the plastics industry into a sustainable one and thereby solve one of the biggest environmental challenges that faces our world.
Maucher Jenkins has been advising clients involved in plastics industries for the last 30 years, particularly in the use of plastics in consumer products, electronics and the packaging industry.