No matter how much we may try and move away from plastics, especially those that are single-use, they are wonder-materials with properties we can’t seem to do without. The COVID-19 pandemic has particularly reminded us of this, with PPE, LFDs and other disposables becoming such a key part of everyday life. But no matter how earnestly we might wash out, separate and recycle our plastics at home, one look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is enough to incite a feeling of hopelessness.
But thanks to scientific advancements, there may be hope still. The recent report from the European Patent Office (EPO) Patents for tomorrow’s plastics describes promising innovation over the last decade in two key areas:
how we can recycle plastics more effectively in order to move closer to a circular economy; and
how the relatively new field of bioplastics may help us to avoid the complex issue of recycling altogether.
In this article, I pick out interesting trends and examples from a trainee patent attorney perspective, and discuss what might be expected from the plastic technology scene in the future.
Plastic recycling: from recovery to transformation
The recycling process can be separated into two main stages: waste recovery and recycling methods. The EPO report reveals that the recovery stage has enjoyed the fastest growth in innovation in the last decade, based on the number of international patent families (IPFs). In particular, the sorting and separating process has been the subject of intensive research. This is unsurprising, given the complexity of this process, especially at the post-consumer level. One notable problem which has encouraged new inventions is the separation of layered plastics into their individual components – think stripping a shampoo bottle into its various plastic units, but on an industrial scale.
Of the major recycling methods employed following waste recovery, chemical and biological recycling has seen the biggest innovation boom. Within this sector, plastic-to-feedstock processes historically have the greatest proportion of IPFs – these methods involve reducing the molecular weight of polymers, which are then used in the petrochemical industry. However, the EPO report indicates that IPFs for this process have been declining in recent years.
Indeed, the notable emerging areas within chemical and biological recycling have been the more eco-friendly plastic-to-compost and plastic-to-monomer methods. One exciting example from these new areas is enzymatic depolymerisation. In this process, naturally occurring enzymes are used to decompose a variety of plastics into their original monomers. This is a particularly attractive method of recycling because the monomers produced can be used to re-form virgin quality polymers, so the properties of the plastic do not deteriorate after multiple cycles.
Bioplastics: the solution to the closed-loop problem?
Bioplastics is a term encompassing bio-based and biodegradable plastics. A rapidly growing class of the former is ‘drop-in plastics’. These are replicas of traditional fossil-based plastics derived from bio-sourced monomers, such as Bio-PE and Bio-PET. The advantages of these materials are the renewability of their components and the reduced CO2 emissions accompanying their production, while their favourable properties are unchanged from their fossil-based counterparts. However, these materials are typically not biodegradable, which means complex recycling processes are required for a closed-loop system.
From an environmental perspective, an ideal bioplastic is one that is both bio-based and biodegradable. This is the speciality of Biome Bioplastics. Biome have a customer-focused approach to producing plant-based plastics which also have high functional performance. Their achievements range from BiomeHT, a heat-resistant range of plastics, to BiomeEP, a range of printed laminate films. They have also invested significantly in a new class of polymers based on bio-based FDCA and PDCA monomers and are active innovators in this field.
We are only at the beginning of the technical journey on bio-based and biodegradable plastics. Traditional oil-based plastics, whilst cheap at the point of use, are costly in their carbon release and environmental persistence. I am convinced that technology shift will allow us the keep the ubiquitous utility of such materials without the planet damage."
Paul Mines – CEO, Biome Bioplastics
Which nations are leading the race to a circular model?
Currently, data from the EPO report show that Europe and the US are clear leaders in the circular plastics industry, with a combined share of around 60% of relevant IPFs in the last decade. The UK is among the European nations noted for having particularly high specialisations in the industry.
But what might we expect to see in this next decade? The report notes that Europe is the only major patent jurisdiction to contribute a higher share of IPFs from research institutions than its share of all IPFs in the field. This shows that Europe is particularly focused on upstream research when it comes to the circular plastics industry, which may translate to a higher share of industrial prowess going forward.
We look forward to seeing future innovation in the design and recycling of plastics, and its transformative impact on our planet. Meanwhile, if you would like to discuss further, please get in touch with Joseph Etherington, James Snaith or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.