With pollution and climate change posing a major hazard to our health and the environment, innovation will play a crucial role in the search for solutions. While plastics are essential to the economy, plastic pollution is threatening ecosystems all over the planet. Over 50 million tonnes of plastics were produced last year alone, whilst at the same time up to 25 million tonnes of plastic waste went into landfill and up to 23 million tonnes of waste could have gone into rivers, lakes and oceans. 

Innovation in recycling will create jobs

Plastic-to-product recycling technologies are currently the simplest and most common recycling solution. These are typically employed to recycle thermoplastics, namely plastics that can be re‑melted and reformed for the manufacturing of new products. The operation is simple but the likely presence of impurities or contaminants limits its application fields. The good news is that innovation can make a difference. The US and Europe are by far the main global innovators in terms of efforts to make the plastics industry circular, with about 30% each of IPFs related to the circular plastics industry between 2010 and 2019.

They are also the only major innovation centres truly specialising in these technologies. The US, in particular, shows significantly higher revealed technological advantages in both plastic recycling and bioplastic technologies. By improving waste management and plastic recycling, new technologies can accelerate the transition to a fully circular model that keeps materials flowing in a “closed loop” system, rather than being used once and discarded. In Europe it is especially the North that bring new solutions on the market with emphasis on the German market.

Germany is leading innovation process in Europe

European universities and public research organisations are pioneering a range of technologies that foster the reusability, recyclability and bio-degradability of plastic products. But the major challenge faced by many is turning their research findings into inventions and bringing them to market. Intellectual property (IP) rights can help them to commercialise their findings. In Europe, industries that make intensive use of IP rights account for 45% of the EU’s GDP and 39% of employment (EPO and EUIPO, 2019). IP rights also make it easier for innovative start-ups and spin-offs to attract venture capital and pursue licensing agreements.

Germany is the main contributor among EPC countries, showing a particularly high share of IPFs in pre-consumer (16%) as compared with post-consumer (10%) recycling. This may reflect the importance of the industrial production sector in its economy. France and Italy also show a significant contribution to post-consumer recycling, each with 4% of IPFs in that field. Together, the top five and top ten applicants in plastic-to-product recycling generated 10% and 14% of IPFs, respectively, between 2010 and 2019. While higher than those in waste recovery, these figures still show a relatively low concentration of innovation activity. Bridgestone and Michelin dominate the ranking. Both tyre companies are particularly innovative in tyre retreading technologies. Consumer goods company Procter & Gamble also stands out as a major applicant in the field. Apart from Unicharm, all other applicants belong to the chemical industry.