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Patents for tomorrow's plastics Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources

Authors:
Patents for tomorrows plastics
Global innovation trends in recycling, circular design and alternative sources
October 2021
2
Foreword
How can we find a path towards a more sustainable planet? With pollution posing a major
hazard to our health and the environment, innovation will play a crucial role in the search
for solutions. This study focuses on the future of plastics and how new technologies can help
to forge a more sustainable future.
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.
The good news is that innovation can make a dierence. 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.
Drawing on the EPO's cutting-edge patent data, this study oers policymakers and investors
key insights into potentially game-changing chemical and biological recycling methods
for producing virgin-like plastics from waste. It also highlights Europe’s contribution to
innovation in this sector. European universities and public research organisations are
pioneering a range of technologies that foster the reusability, recyclability and bio-degra-
dability 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-os to attract venture capital and pursue licensing agreements.
As the European Commission’s Green Deal to make the EU carbon neutral by 2050 takes
shape, helping innovative players to flourish is essential. This study not only oers a
unique source of business intelligence on promising technologies for decision-makers in
government and industry. It also sheds light on how innovation, coupled with regulation
and cross-border collaboration, can create a smarter, more sustainable future for
plastic-reliant industries.
António Campinos
President, European Patent Office
3
Table of contents
Foreword 2
List of tables and figures 5
List of abbreviations 6
List of countries 6
Executive summary 7
Key findings 8
1. Introduction 13
2. Plastic recycling 17
2.1 Relevant technologies 18
2.2 Overview of technology trends 18
2.3 Waste recovery 21
2.4 Recycling methods: plastic to product 23
2.5 Recycling methods: chemical and biological recycling 27
Case study: Higher-performance plastic recycling 31
Case study: Plastics from plant starch 33
3. Alternative plastics 35
3.1. About bioplastics 36
3.2. Overview of technology trends in bioplastics 39
3.3. Innovation in bioplastics in selected industry sectors 44
Case study: Eco-friendly packaging 48
Case study: Vitrimers 50
4
Annex 1 Patent metrics 52
Annex 2 Cartography of technologies related to plastic recycling and 54
alternative recycling
References 57
5
List of tables and figures
Tables
Table 2.2.1 Origins of IPFs related to plastic recycling, 2010–2019 
Table 3.2.1 Origins of IPFs related to bioplastics, 2010–2019 
Tab le A1 Overview of the cartography 
Figures
Figure E.1 Origins of inventions related to the circular plastics industry, 2010-2019
Figure E.2 Innovation in recycling technologies (number of IPFs, 2010-2019)
Figure E.3 Upstream research in recycling technologies, 2010–2019 
Figure E.4 Innovation in bioplastics for selected sectors 
Figure E.5 IPFs related to design for easier recycling, dynamic covalent bonds,
self repairing polymers and vitrimers, 1980–2019

Figure 1.1 Global production of polymer resin and fibre, 1950–2015
(million tonnes per year)

Figure 1.2 Plastic demand by segment in Europe, 2019 
Figure 1.3 Origins of plastic waste 
Figure 2.1.1 Overview of plastic recycling technologies 
Figure 2.2.1 Long-term trends in IPFs related to plastic recycling, 1980–2019 
Figure 2.2.2 Growth of plastic recycling technologies, 2010–2019 (base 1 set in 2010) 
Figure 2.3.1 Number of IPFs related to waste recovery, 1980-2019 
Figure 2.3.2 Top five applicants in waste recovery, 2010–2019 
Figure 2.3.3 Origins of IPFs related to waste recovery, 2010–2019 
Figure 2.4.1 Number of IPFs related to plastic-to-product recycling, 1980–2019 
Figure 2.4.2 Top 10 applicants in plastic-to-product recycling, 2010–2019 
Figure 2.4.3 Origins of IPFs related to plastic-to-product recycling, 2010–2019 
Figure B1.1 Upstream research in recycling technologies, 2010–2019 
Figure B1.2 IPFs originating from start-up and scale-up companies in chemical and
biological recycling, 2010–2019

Figure 2.5.1 Number of IPFs related to chemical and biological recycling, 1980–2019 
Figure 2.5.2 Top 10 applicants in chemical and biological recycling, 2010–2019 
Figure 2.5.3 Origins of IPFs related to chemical and biological recycling, 2010–2019 
Figure B2 IPFs in enzymatic depolymerisation 
Figure B3.1 IPFs related to design for easier recycling, dynamic covalent bonds,
self repairing polymers and vitrimers, 1980–2019
37
Figure B3.2 Origins of IPFs in dynamic covalent bonds, 2010–2019 
Figure 3.2.1 Growth of patenting in bioplastics versus conventional plastics,
1980–2019 (base 1 set in 1980)

Figure 3.2.2 Number of IPFs by categories of bioplastics, 1980–2019 
Figure 3.2.3 Share of IPFs produced by universities and public research organisations,
2010–2019

Figure B4 Main applicants in CO2-based plastics 
Figure 3.3.1 Innovation in bioplastics for selected sectors and applications, 2010–2019 
Figure 3.3.2
Figure B5.1
Top applicants in bioplastics by selected categories, 2010–2019
Number of IPFs related to circular strategies in packaging, 2010–2019


Figure B5.2 Applications of zero waste inventions, 2000–2019 
6
AI Artificial intelligence
CO2 Carbon dioxide
CANs Covalent adaptable networks
EPC European Patent Convention
EPO European Patent Oce
FDCA Furandicarboxylic acid (precursor material to make PEF)
GHG Greenhouse gas
HMF Hydroxymethylfurfural
IPF International patent family
LCD Liquid crystal display
L-PC Linear chain polycarbonates
MF Melamine-formaldehyde
MMF Methoxymethylfurfural
PEF Polyethylene furanoate
PET Polyethylene terephthalate
PBT Polybutylene terephthalate
PHA Polyhydroxyalkanoates
PPE Personal protective equipment
PROs Public research organisations
PVC Polyvinyl chloride
R&D Research and development
RTA Revealed technology advantage
SUPs Single-use plastics
UF Urea-formaldehyde
List of abbreviations
List of countries
AT Austria
BE Belgium
CH Switzerland
CN People’s Republic of China
DE Germany
DK Denmark
ES Spain
FI Finland
FR France
IL Israel
IT Italy
JP Japan
KR Republic of Korea
NL Netherlands
SA Saudi Arabia
SE Sweden
SG Singapore
TR Turkey
TW Chinese Taipei
UK United Kingdom
7
Back to contents
Executive summary
Our heavy reliance on single-use plastics (SUPs) has long
been of growing concern. The COVID-19 pandemic triggered
a massive deployment of masks, gloves, disposable test
kits, swabs, syringes and medical packaging – all made from
SUPs. This is just one of many instances illustrating the
tension between the social benefits of plastics and the pol-
lution that they cause.
Over the past 70 years, plastics have become an essential
material for many industries and indeed for the economy.
However, there is growing awareness of the dire environ-
mental cost of this economic success. Today, the bulk
of plastic production ends up as waste dumped in the
environment, posing a critical and often immediate threat
for countless endangered species, ecosystems and
dependent socio-economic systems all over the planet.
The systemic challenge raised by this environmental crisis
lies at the heart of the EU Green Deal (European Commission
EC, 2019) and of the United Nations (UN) 2030 Sustainable
Development Goals. To cope with the growing volume of
plastic produced, used and dumped in today's linear economy,
the plastics industry has to transition into a fully circular
model, where end-of-life plastic products are not discarded
as waste but instead become a source of value creation.
Innovation, regulation and international collaboration are
needed to enable this transition. Progress in technologies
related to waste recovery and transformation is crucial to
support the systematic recycling of plastic waste and to
maximise the value derived from it. Dominant technologies
in the plastics industry often reflect a linear-economy
focus on performance and durability. Nevertheless, further
innovation in alternative plastics and designs can also foster
the reusability, recyclability and biodegradability of plastic
products, or even eliminate the need for plastic usage.
Aim of the study
Aimed at decision-makers in both the private and public
sectors, this report is a unique source of intelligence on
these technologies and the technical problems they aim to
address. The report draws on the latest patent information
available and the expertise of European Patent Oce (EPO)
examiners to provide a comprehensive analysis of the
innovation trends driving the transition towards a circular
economy for plastics.
Patent information provides robust statistical evidence
of technical progress. The data presented in this report
shows trends in high-value inventions for which patent
protection has been sought in more than one country.
(IPFs 1). It highlights technology fields that are gathering
momentum and the crossfertilisation taking place. Trends
in circular plastic innovation have never been more impor-
tant to the sector's development. Therefore, it provides a
guide for policymakers and decisionmakers to direct
resources towards promising technologies, assess their
comparative advantage at dierent stages of the value
chain and shed light on innovative companies and
institutions that may be in a position to contribute to
long-term sustainable growth.
1 Each international p atent family (IPF) covers a single inv ention and includes patent
applications file d and published at several paten t oces. It is a reliable prox y for
inventive ac tivity because i t provides a degree of co ntrol for patent quality by o nly
representing inve ntions for which the inventor consi ders the value sucient to se ek
protect ion internationally. The patent tre nd data presented in this repor t refer to
numbers of IPFs .
Back to contents 8
Key findings
The US and Europe stand out as global
innovators for a circular plastics industry
The US and Europe 2 are by far the main global innovators
in terms of eorts to make the plastics industry circular,
with about 30% each of IPFs related to the circular plastics
industry between 2010 and 2019. 3 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. 4
With about 18% of IPFs in 2010–2019, Japan is far ahead of
the Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China
(each at about 5%). However, all three show a similar lack of
specialisation in these technologies.
Within Europe, France, the UK, Italy, the Netherlands and
Belgium stand out for their specialisation in both plastic
recycling and bioplastic technologies. Although it posted
the highest share of IPFs due to its larger economy,
Germany lacks specialisation in these fields.
2 Unless specified other wise, Europe and European countrie s refer in the study to all
the 38 contrac ting states of the European Pa tent Convention (EPC). These c ountries
include but are no t restricted to the 27 me mber states of the European Unio n (EU).
3 The date attrib uted to a given IPF always ref ers to the year of the earliest
publication wi thin the IPF.
4 Specialisation is measured h ere using the revealed technolog ical advantage (RTA)
index. The RTA indic ates a country's specialis ation in terms of circular plastics
innovation rela tive to its overall innova tion capacity. It is defin ed as a country's share
of IPFs in a part icular field of technolog y divided by the countr y's share of IPFs in all
fields of technol ogy. An RTA above one reflec ts a country's spe cialisation in a given
technolog y. Only the highest RTAs (approximately 1. 5 or more) are reported in
the chart.
Share of IPFs Revealed technology advantage > 1 Revealed technology advantage < 1
Figure E.1
Origins of inventions related to the circular plastics industry, 2010-2019
% 1.6
%
%
%
%
%
%
% 0
Plastic
recycling
Alternative
plastics
Plastics
recycling
Alternative
plastics
Plastics
recycling
Alternative
plastics
Plastics
recycling
Alternative
plastics
Plastics
recycling
Alternative
plastics
.%
.%
Europe US JP KR CN
.% .%
. %  . %
.% .% .% . %
.
.
.
.
.
.
..
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
Source: European Patent Oce
RTA
Share of IPFs
9
Back to contents
Chemical and biological recycling generated
the highest level of patenting activities
Mechanical recycling is currently the simplest and most
commonly used solution to transform plastic waste
into new products. It generated nearly 4 500 IPFs from
2010 to 2019, with an increasing focus on addressing the
quality degradation issues when recycling plastic waste
that is collected post consumer. However, with more than
9 000 IPFs over the same period, it is chemical and
biological recycling methods that stand out in terms of
the number of IPFs.
Chemical methods mainly consist of energy-intensive
plastic-to-feedstock recycling processes (such as cracking
and pyrolysis). Here, the chemical structure of plastic
waste is converted into a mixture of basic chemicals,
allowing for flexible reuse in the petrochemical industry.
However, innovation in these technologies reached a peak
in 2014. Emerging plastic-to-monomer recycling technologies
now oer possibilities to break down polymers into their
original building blocks, allowing for near virgin-quality
material and a larger number of possible cycles. Likewise,
recent biological plastic-to-compost recycling represents
a comparatively small number of IPFs. This promising
technology involves the use of living organisms to degrade
polymers into compost.
All these methods require an eective recovery of plastic
waste (about 3 400 IPFs from 2010 to 2019), where dierent
categories of plastics are identified, separated and cleaned
before recycling. Innovation eorts are mainly focused on
the sorting and separating of waste, including the use of
sophisticated technologies such as optical recognition and
artificial intelligence (AI).
Source: European Patent Oce
Figure E.2
Innovation in recycling technologies (number of IPFs, 2010-2019)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
... to produc t
(pre-consumer)
... to produc t
(post-consumer)
... to compos t ... to monomer ... to feedst ock Collecting Cleaning Sorting
and separating

 
 
 


 
 
Mechanical re cycling... Biological and chemical recycling… Waste recovery
Note: Some inventions may be relevant to dierent technology fields, resulting in the related IPFs being counted once in each field.
10
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Fundamental research is key to further progress
in chemical and biological recycling.
Europe's good performance in this respect shows
potential to bring new technologies to market.
Chemical and biological recycling methods rely far more
on upstream fundamental research than other recycling
technologies, with nearly 20% of IPFs stemming from
universities and public research organisations (PROs) in
the period 2010 to 2019. Innovation in waste recovery and
plastic-to-product recycling frequently relies on available
technologies and existing engineering approaches, which
explains the lower shares (7.4% and 6.8%, respectively)
of IPFs produced by research institutions in these fields.
European countries and the US demonstrate a clear lead
with chemical and biological recycling methods, each
with 29% of the IPFs stemming from research institutions.
Europe is the only major innovation centre that contributes
more to IPFs in upstream research than to all IPFs in the
field (26%). By contrast, the US's and Japan's contributions
to upstream IPFs (29% and 11%) are lower than their
respective shares in all IPFs (36% and 17%).
This suggests that Europe, despite being particularly active
in fundamental research, is not exploiting its full potential
when it comes to transferring these technologies to indus-
try. A closer analysis of the IPFs originating from start-up
and scale-up companies supports this finding. Although
the number of such IPFs increased in the same proportions
in both regions between 2010 and 2019, US start-ups and
scale-ups generated four times as many IPFs than their
European counterparts (338 versus 84) over the decade.
a) Share of IPFs generated by universities and PROs
%
%
%
%
%
Waste recovery Plastic to product Che mical and biological
. %
.%
.%
Source: European Patent Oce
Figure E.3
Upstream research in recycling technologies, 2010–2019
b) IPFs generated by universities and PROs in chemical and
biological recycling
Note: The geographic origins of the IPFs in Figure E.3b are based on the country of the applicants.
Europe US CN JP KR Others
29%
29%
13%
8%
10%
11%
11
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Bioplastics provide alternatives
to conventional fossil raw materials
Bio-based and/or biodegradable plastics show potential
for enhancing circularity and reducing the carbon emissions
generated by the use of conventional fossil raw materials.
Patenting activities in these bioplastics took o in the
late 1980s and since then have followed a growth trend
similar to that of conventional plastics technologies.
Of these materials, chemically modified natural polymers
(such as modified cellulose) generated the largest share
of patenting activities over the past decade. However,
polymers from bio-sourced monomers have been the
fastest-growing field. Most of the patents in this field
relate to so-called “drop-in plastics” (i.e. Bio-PE, Bio-PET)
which, although not biodegradable, allow for a reduced
consumption of non-renewable resources and CO2
emissions at the production stage. Among the smaller
fields, industrial natural polymers show potential for
creating reusable, recyclable plastics that can be readily
broken down by microorganisms.
Despite accounting for less than 3% of the total demand
for plastics in Europe (PlasticsEurope, 2020), healthcare
is by far the most important industry in terms of the number
of IPFs in bioplastics, with more than 19 000 IPFs recorded
from 2010 to 2019. Meanwhile, cosmetics and detergents
show the highest rate of innovation in bioplastics. In that
sector, IPFs related to bioplastics are at 32% of the level
of IPFs for conventional plastics. Packaging, electronics and
textiles are also significant contributors to innovation in
bioplastics, with 6 400, 4 500 and 3 300 IPFs, respectively,
from 2010 to 2019. Agriculture shows a high penetration
rate (10%) and posted 2.5 times more IPFs for bioplastics
in 2019 than in 2010.
Number of IPFs Penetration rate
Figure E.4
Innovation in bioplastics for selected sectors
  35%
 
 
 
 
0%
Healthcare Packaging Cosmetics and
detergents
Electronics Te xti le Automotive Construction Agriculture
%
%
 
 
 

 
 


%
%
%
%
%
%
%
% %
%
%
%
Source: European Patent Oce
Note: The penetration rate is defined as the ratio of the number of IPFs in alternative plastics to the number of IPFs related to conventional plastics in the same sector.
Penetration rateNumber of IPFs
12
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Rapidly emerging technologies allow for novel
designs of durable plastic materials
In the early 1990s, technologies focused on plastic design
for easier recycling started to emerge and these have been
developing exponentially ever since. The rapid growth of
patenting in these fields is driven by progress in dynamic
covalent bonding, a synthetic strategy employed to form
3D networks of macromolecular chains that can break and
reform via reversible chemical reactions. This dynamic
reversibility can overcome diculties encountered in the
processing and recycling of the many polymers used in
aerospace, construction, transport and microelectronics.
Among recent developments, vitrimers are a promising
type of covalent adaptable network (CAN). Vitrimers
are strong, stable and intrinsically self-healing, with
potential for replacing thermoset plastics in high-
performance and lightweight applications, such as
the production of composite parts for aircraft,
automotive, sports equipment and wind turbine blades.
Japan demonstrates a strong lead in technologies using
dynamic covalent bonds, with nearly half (49%) of related
IPFs from 2010 to 2019. The US follows with 24%, while
European countries contribute only 17%. However, most of
the IPFs originating from universities and PROs are from
European and US research institutions (40% and 30%,
respectively), while Japan has only 7%. Japan leads overall
despite a small presence in university research, in stark
contrast to Europe, which contributes nearly twice as
much to upstream university research than to related
patenting activities.





                                     
Figure E.5
IPFs related to design for easier recycling, dynamic covalent bonds, self-repairing polymers and vitrimers, 1980-2019





Earliest publication year
Easier recycling Dynamic covalent bonds Self-repairing Vitrimers
Source: European Patent Oce
13
Back to contents
5 Each IPF cover s a single invention and includes pate nt applications filed and pub-
lished at several p atent oces. It is a reliable pr oxy for inventive acti vity because it
provides a de gree of control for patent quali ty by only representing inv entions for
which the inventor c onsiders the value sucient to s eek protection inte rnationally.
The patent trend da ta presented in this repor t refers to numbers of IPF s. The use of
IPFs as an innovatio n indicator is detailed in more d epth in Annex 1 of this repor t.
6 T he first patent on PVC was gran ted in 1913 to German inventor Friedrich K latte
for his process of v inyl chloride polymeris ation using sunlight. In the 1920s, Waldo
Semon took Kla tte's invention and found a way t o produce PVC in a solid, plastic ised
form as a substitu te for natural rubber.
7 Additiv es can render polymers b acteria- or fire-resist ant, give them a rainbow of
colours, make them fl exible, fill them with bubbles t o make them better insulators
or even add fibres to make hig h-tech composites.
.
Plastics are everywhere in the economy
Industrial-scale plastics production began in earnest in
the 1940s and rapidly increased in the 1950s (Figure 1.1).
Growth has subsequently outpaced any other manufactured
material (Geyer et al., 2017), with more than 8 billion tonnes
of plastics produced worldwide from 1950 to 2015. Today, the
plastics industry employs 1.56 million people in Europe
alone, and ranks seventh in Europe in industrial value-added
contribution (PlasticsEurope, 2020). Innovation in new
plastic materials and production processes has been one
of the key drivers of this success. Roughly a century after
the creation of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), thousands of
dierent kinds of plastics are now available. 6
With 50.7 million tonnes of plastics produced in 2019, Europe
accounts for about 16% of global production, behind North
America (19%) and Asia (51%) (PlasticsEurope, 2020). This
production includes a large variety of plastics, including
pure polymers, as well as mixtures of polymers, additives, 7
colourants and fillers. Over 90% of raw plastic is synthesised
from fossil feedstock (oil or natural gas). However, chemically
modifying renewable feedstock can also produce polymers.
As a material, plastics provide various technical benefits such
as outstanding strength-to-weight ratio and permanency
(they do not require extensive maintenance and are mostly
resistant to corrosion). The physical properties of polymers
can be easily tailored: plastics can be hard and shatter-resist-
ant or soft and flexible. This is achieved by optimising
their chemical structure or by using functional additives,
colourants or fillers resulting in multicomponent plastics.
This versatility, combined with the low cost of plastic
production, is the major reason why plastics are currently
used in almost every economic sector (Figure 1.2).
1. Introduction
Over the past 70 years, plastics have become an essential
material for many industries and indeed for the economy.
However, there is growing awareness of the dire environ-
mental cost of this economic success. Today, the bulk
of plastic production ends up as waste dumped in the
environment, posing a critical and often immediate threat
for countless endangered species, ecosystems and
dependent socio-economic systems all over the planet.
The systemic challenge raised by this environmental crisis
lies at the heart of the EU Green Deal (EC, 2019) and of
the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. To cope
with the growing volume of plastic produced, used and
dumped in today's linear economy, the plastics industry
has to transition into a fully circular model, where
end-of-life plastic products are not discarded as waste
but instead become a source of value creation.
Innovation, regulation and international collaboration are
needed to enable this transition. Progress in technologies
related to waste recovery and transformation is crucial to
support the systematic recycling of plastic waste and to
maximise the value derived from it. Dominant technologies
in the plastics industry often reflect a linear-economy
focus on performance and durability. Nevertheless, further
innovation in alternative plastics and designs can also foster
the reusability, recyclability and biodegradability of plastic
products, or even eliminate the need for plastic usage.
Aimed at decision-makers in both the private and public
sectors, this report is a unique source of intelligence on
these technologies and the problems they aim to address.
The report draws on the latest patent information
available and the expertise of EPO examiners to provide a
comprehensive analysis of the innovation trends driving
the transition towards a circular economy for plastics.
Patent information provides robust statistical evidence of
technical progress. The data presented in this report
shows trends in high-value inventions for which patent
protection has been sought in more than one country
(IPFs 5). It highlights technology fields that are gathering
momentum and the cross-fertilisation taking place.
Trends in circular plastic innovation have never been more
important to the sector's development. Therefore, it
provides a guide for policymakers and decision-makers to
direct resources towards promising technologies, assess
their comparative advantage at dierent stages of the
value chain and shed light on innovative companies and
institutions that may be in a position to contribute to
long-term sustainable growth.
14
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Indeed, plastics can be found in mobile phones, televisions,
computers and other electronic equipment that make
modern life possible. They are used to make toys, textiles
and car airbags. They are present in the roofs, walls,
flooring and insulation that make homes and buildings
energy ecient. Plastics are also in many products
that people would not even recognise as plastic, such as
cosmetics, paints, protective coatings and linings.
Last but not least, they are ubiquitous in packaging.
Such uses often reflect key properties that only plastics
can provide at an aordable cost. For instance, the use of
lightweight and innovative plastics has played a critical
role in reducing the mass of cars, aircraft, ships and trains,
thereby enabling considerable cuts in energy demand and
CO2 emissions. In healthcare, plastics are used for single-use
medical tools, packaging and even for medical surgery and
transplants. Most recently, the combined use of bio-
compatible plastic materials with 3D printing technologies
has opened up new avenues for medicine, providing yet
another example of this material's vast innovation potential.








             
Figure 1.1
Global production of polymer resin and fibre, 1950–2015 (million tonnes per year)

Source: Geyser et al., 2017
Figure 1.2
Plastic demand by segment in Europe, 2019
Packaging
Building and construction
Automotive
Electrical and electronics
Household, leisure and sports
Others
% % % % %
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
Note: Europe is defined here as including the EU27, Norway, Switzerland and the UK.
Source: PlasticsEurope, 2020
15
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The global threat of plastic waste
Paradoxically, plastic's very success causes major concern
in the light of the massive quantities of plastic waste
generated and the global threat for the environment. Plastic
pollution is present around the world. It is estimated that
more than half of all the past production of plastics has
been discarded, while only 15% has been recycled or
incinerated (Figure 1.3). 8 And every year, another 9 to 23
million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in rivers, lakes and
the ocean, while 13 to 25 million tonnes are dumped on
land (MacLeod et al., 2021).
The material's durability and resistance means that plastic
waste remains in the environment, taking from decades
to centuries to naturally decay. Plastic pollution is hard to
reverse when manufacturing, use 9 or the weather causes
plastic to fragment into microplastic and nanoplastic
particles that are not visible to the human eye. Evidence
points to it playing a predominant role in the loss of
biodiversity and altering of ecosystems, including wildlife's
ingestion of plastics or microplastics, habitat changes
within soils and ecotoxicity (MacLeod et al., 2021).
8 Another study publishe d in 2017 (Geyer et al., 2017) es timates that approximately
6.3 billion tonnes o f plastic waste had been gene rated as of 2015, of which less
than 10% had been re cycled (with less than 1% b eing recycled more than onc e) and
12% incinerated. T he vast majority, 79%, w as accumulated in landfills or the
natural environment .
9 Mi croplastics are in some case s intentionally added to cer tain product categ ories
(such as cosmetics , detergents, paints), disper sed during the producti on, transport
and use of plastic p ellets or generated throu gh the wear and tear of product s such
as tyres, pain ts and synthetic tex tiles.
Despite growing awareness of these threats, current fore-
casts point towards the issue simply getting worse. The
emission rates of plastic waste is expected to approximately
double from 2016 to 2025 (MacLeod et al., 2021), and as much
as 12 000 million tonnes will have accumulated in landfills
or the natural environment by 2050 (Kakadellis and Rosetto,
2021). Waste disposal infrastructure varies by location,
and plastic ends up in the environment via leakages from
waste collection, recycling and disposal systems or the
absence of those systems in general. In the EU, only 42% of
plastic waste is collected for recycling (Partridge and
Medda, 2019), about half of which is sent abroad, where it
often ends up in illegal landfills (d'Ambrières, 2019).
Figure 1.3
Origins of plastic waste
a) Global plastic waste production by sector b) Status of the global stock of plastics
Packaging
Textile
Other Sectors
Consumer and institutional products
Transport
Building and construction
Electrical and electronics
% % % % % %
Discarded
Still in use
Incinerated
Recycled
% % % % % %
.%
Source: Smith and Vignieri, 2021
% %
%
% %
%
% %
%
% %
16
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Towards a circular economy for plastics
Given our deep-rooted economic reliance on plastics, the
challenge of managing plastic waste is a systemic one.
Besides the elimination of plastic waste in the environment,
it calls for the reduction of plastic use and the reuse of
plastics, whenever possible. Estimates suggest that
increased waste management capacity alone cannot keep
pace with projected growth in plastic waste generation
by 2030 (Borelle et al., 2020).
Unless growth in plastic production is stopped, we will
need to fundamentally transform the plastic economy into
a circular framework, where plastic waste can be fed back
into the economy as a source of value. This would signifi-
cantly reduce CO2 emissions as the use of recycled plastics
prevents the emissions generated by the production of
new plastics. Such a systemic shift, however, necessitates
a holistic approach combining strong regulatory frame-
works, as well as international and industry collaboration
(Kakadellis and Rosetto, 2021; Simon et al., 2021).
Likewise, we require a new approach to innovation and
technology, away from the dominant linear model where
fossil resources are extracted to make products that are
discarded after use. In general, it is easier and cheaper
to manufacture new, disposable plastics from virgin fos-
sil-based feedstocks than to sort and reuse reprocessed
material. The vast majority of plastics is still designed
for performance and durability rather than for degradability
or recyclability. The use of complex multicomponent
plastics creates a barrier to recycling because of the need
for separation prior to reprocessing.
10 Fur ther details on the identific ation methodolog y are provided in Annex 2 of
this report .
Contents
This study focuses on technologies that oer a pathway to
a more circular plastics industry. Drawing on the latest
patent information available and on the expertise of EPO
examiners for the identification of key technology fields, 10
it analyses the latest trends, benchmarks them against
conventional plastic technologies and documents the global
innovators in circular plastic technologies.
We have identified two broad categories of technologies,
each of which has been dedicated a main section of
the study, complemented by case studies illustrating a
range of related inventions.
The first section is dedicated to technologies that can be
used in the recycling of plastic waste. Besides the waste
recovery and mechanical methods used to recycle plastic
waste into new products, it includes alternative chemical
and biological solutions, which make it possible to recycle
polymers into their constituting basic units or to degrade
them into compost.
The second section focuses on alternative types of plastics,
such as bioplastics, which can facilitate the degradation
or recycling of plastic waste. It discusses the respective
merits of the various categories of plastics. The study also
examines patenting trends in new plastic designs and
additional strategies to boost resource eciency to plastics.
17
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2. Plastic recycling
18
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2. Plastic recycling
This first section focuses on the technologies enabling
a circular economy for plastics – from the recovery of
2.1. Relevant technologies
Europe may be advanced in matters of plastic recycling,
yet in 2018, only about a third of the 29.1 million tonnes of plas-
tic waste collected there was recycled (PlasticsEurope, 2020). 11
The underlying collection and recycling processes are complex,
with many regulations (d'Ambrières, 2019). 12 They also draw on
a diverse set of technology solutions (Figure 2.1.1), which need
to be developed to deploy a circular plastics industry.
Plastic recycling needs the right infrastructure and the right
waste collection rules. This is a relatively easy task when
pre-consumer plastic scraps are directly recovered during a
manufacturing process. However, the recovery of post-
consumer products is far more complex. The diversity of
plastic waste is a critical obstacle to post-consumer plastic re-
cycling. It is not sucient to simply separate waste collection.
Indeed, dierent categories of plastics need to be identified,
separated and cleaned before applying recycling methods. This
makes the recycling of products made of multilayer plastics
particularly dicult. Innovation technologies facilitating the
sorting, separating and cleaning of plastic waste are therefore
critical in fostering a circular plastics economy.
As a second step, a variety of methods can be employed
to recycle collected plastics, each of which involves
specific technical conditions and valuation. Mechanical
plastic-to-product recycling is the simplest, most common
solution. It is typically based on the melting and reforming
of thermoplastics or on the use of scraps in the composition
of new products. Technical constraints, such as the need for
virgin-like feedstock and the degradation of the polymers'
quality during the recycling process, limit its potential.
Against this backdrop, chemical and biological recyclingmeth-
ods oer promising alternatives. Feedstock recyclingmethods,
such as cracking, gasification and pyrolysis,typically involve
thermal treatments to decompose recovered plastics into
shorter molecules. 13 These can then serve as virgin feedstock
for new chemical reactions or for energy generation.
Plastic-to-monomer recycling aims to recover the monomers,
i.e. the building blocks of the polymer, allowing for the pro-
duction of plastics with 100% recycled content with virgin-like
properties and a larger number of reuse cycles. Biological
recycling methods involve the use of enzymes or living
organisms to degrade polymers to compost or monomers to
synthesise useful compounds by biochemical transformation.
11 Including here the EU27, Norway, Swi tzerland and the UK.
12 The most stringent o f which can be found in Europe and Japan.
13 Typically, a mix of hydrocarbons , which can be separated into th e individual
fractio ns. Oils are used to produce fuels . Waxes can be used to produce
lubricants. O ligomers and monomers can b e used to produce new poly mers.
The other hydroc arbons can be used to produ ce new chemicals.
post- consumer plastic waste to the various
processes available for its recycling.
It emphasises emerging innovation trends
within these different technology fields.
Figur e 2.1.1
Overview of plastic recycling technologies
Source: European Patent Oce
Waste recovery
Collecting Sorting and
separating Cleaning
Recycling methods
Pre-consumer plastic to product
Plastic to feedstock
Post-consumer plastic to product
Plastic to compost
Plastic to monomer
Plastic to incineration or energy recovery
19
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Finally, incineration provides an energy recovery solution
for waste plastics that cannot be sustainably and eciently
recycled, due for example to the diculty of properly sorting
and cleaning them. As such, it provides an alternative to
landfilling. In 2018, up to 42.6% of the plastic waste collected
in Europe was incinerated (PlasticsEurope, 2020).
2.2. Overview of technology trends
Patenting activities related to plastic recycling took o
in the mid-1980s and subsequently experienced two major
periods of growth from 1997 to 2002 and from 2006 to
2014. However, after peaking in 2014, the patenting of these
technologies declined (Figure 2.2.1). This negative trend is not
visible in conventional plastic innovation, which posted a
positive growth of IPFs between 2016 and 2019 (Figure 2.2.2).
It is mainly due to a fall in patenting of plastic-to-feedstock re-
cycling. This field alone represented a third of all IPFs since 2010,
and decreased by 8.3% on average between 2014 and 2019.
By contrast, innovation in plastic-to-product recycling and
waste recovery (which represented 25% and 19% of IPFs from
2010 to 2019) posted positive growth over the same period.
Other recycling technologies (encompassing emerging
technologies in plastic-to-compost and plastic-to-monomer as
well as plastic-to-incineration or energy recovery) contributed
to the overall decline of patenting activities.
 
 
 

                 
Figure 2.2.1
Long-term trends in IPFs related to plastic recycling, 1980-2019

Waste recovery Plastic to product Plastic to feedstock Other recycling
Source: European Patent Oce
Note: Some IPFs may be relevant to two or more of the four listed fields. In such cases they are counted once in each field.
Figure 2.2.2
Growth of plastic recycling technologies, 2010–2019 (base 1 set in 2010)
.
.
.
.
.
.
         
.
Waste recovery Plastic to product Plastic to feedstock Other recycling Conventional plastics benchmark
.
.
.
.
Source: European Patent Oce
Earliest publication year
Number of IPFs
20
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Within Europe, the large number of IPFs posted by Germany
reflects the size of its economy rather than a real specialisa-
tion in plastic recycling technologies (RTA<1). France,
the UK and Italy show some specialisation in the field.
Among smaller European countries, the Netherlands and
Belgium have particularly high (above 2) RTAs, denoting
a strong technological specialisation in plastic recycling.
The geographic origins of the IPFs, calculated based on the
location of inventors, are reported in Table 2.2.1. The US and
Europe (defined here as the 38 member states of the EPC)
clearly dominate the ranking, each with about 30% of all IPFs
from 2010 to 2019. They are followed by Japan, with about 18%
of all IPFs, while China and the Republic of Korea each post a
modest 5%. Of these five major innovation centres, the US and
Europe are the only two to show a real specialisation in plastic
recycling technologies. The US has a revealed technological
advantage (RTA) and a higher number of IPFs per capita.
By contrast, Japan, China and the Republic of Korea all show
a lack of specialisation in plastic recycling technologies.
Table 2.2.1
Origins of IPFs related to plastic recycling, 2010-2019
Number of IPFs
2010-2019*
Share of IPFs
2010-2019*
IPFs per
mio capita*
RTA
2010-2019**
US   .% . .
EPC   .% . .
EU   .% . .
JP   .% . .
DE   .% . .
CN  .% . .
KR  .% . .
FR  .% . .
NL  .% . .
GB  .% . .
IT  .% . .
BE  .% . .
ES  .% . .
CH  .% . .
DK  .% . .
SE  .% . .
* The number of IPFs per country is calculated based on the location of the inventors, using fractional counting in case of multiple inventors for the same IPF.
** The revealed technological advantage (RTA) index indicates a country's specialisation in terms of bioplastics technology innovation relative to its overall innovation
capacity. It is defined as a country's share of IPFs in a particular field of technology divided by the country's share of IPFs in all fields of technology. An RTA above one
reflects a country's specialisation in a given technology.
21
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2.3. Waste recovery
Waste recovery has been the fastest-growing field in plastic
recycling technologies since 2010. The recovery and prepara-
tion of plastic waste is an obvious prerequisite to its recycling,
and, as such, a major challenge to achieving a circular econ-
omy of plastics. While all the main steps of recovery, namely
the collecting, sorting and separating, and cleaning of plastics,
involve significant industrial challenges, the sorting and sep-
arating step is the most innovation-intensive, as revealed by
the high, fast-growing number of related IPFs (Figure 2.3.1).
Inventions related to sorting and separating are needed to
cope with the diversity of plastic waste and to route each
type of waste to the appropriate recycling method. These
inventions range from identifying and sorting plastics from
waste streams, generally based on optical identification, to
the separation of dierent components of plastic articles
(delaminating layered product, separation based on density
dierence or separation using gravity, such as wind sifter
and electrostatic separation for instance).







                                     
Collecting Sorting and separating Cleaning
Figur e 2.3.1
Number of IPFs related to waste recovery, 1980-2019




Source: European Patent Oce

Earliest publication year
22
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There are a large number of dierent applicants in waste
recovery. The top applicant, Samsung Electronics, accounts
for only 1.5% of all IPFs from 2010 to 2019, and the top five
applicants for a mere 6%. This fragmentation is reflected in
the diversity of the top applicants' profiles. Samsung,
a major Korean conglomerate and one of the global leaders
in consumer electronics, is directly followed by Unicharm,
a Japanese company that manufactures disposable hygiene
and cleaning products. Next comes BOE Technology Group,
a Chinese electronic components producer. Procter &
Gamble, an American multinational consumer goods group,
and Nitto Denko, a Japanese company that produces tapes
and vinyl among other products, complete this ranking.
Europe shows a strong lead in the distribution of IPFs in all
fields of plastic waste recovery. In sorting and separating
technologies, European countries generated 38% of all IPFs
from 2010 to 2019. Japan and the US follow, with about
19% each. Europe posted a similar 38% share of IPFs
in waste cleaning technologies and up to 40% of IPFs in
plastic waste collecting.
Figure 2.3.2
Top five applicants in waste recovery, 2010-2019
Samsung Electronics [KR]
Unicharm [JP]
BOE Technology Group [CN]
Procter & Gamble [US]
Nitto Denko [JP]
     





Source: European Patent Oce
Source: European Patent Oce
Figure2.3. 3
Origins of IPFs related to waste recovery, 2010-2019
Waste recovery
Cleaning
Collecting
Sorting and separating
% % % % % % % % % % %
19.1
23.2
17.6
16.6
5.1
4.4
4.8
6.2
10.2
12.5
4.4
3.7
4.2
4.5
4.1
3.7
0.9
2.0
15.5
12.2
13.1
12.0
19.2 19.5 6.3 6.6 10.5 4.1 4.0 3.4
1.9
12.412.1
36%
38%
40%
18.1 20.9 7.0 6.8 9.9 4.4 4.1 3.1 11.7
12.0
35%
2.0
US JP KR CN Other non-EPC DE FR IT UK NL Other EPC
Number of IPFs
23
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2.4. Recycling methods: plastic to product
Plastic-to-product recycling technologies are currently
the simplest and most common recycling solution. These
are typically employed to recycle thermoplastics, name-
ly 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. Even though the technologies
are available on a large scale, specific challenges due to
thermomechanical or lifetime degradation of the polymer
materials, and constraints related to the presence of other
polymers or additives, limit the number of possible cycles.
In terms of patenting, plastic-to-product was the dominant
plastic recycling technology until the 1990s. Subsequently,
plastic-to-feedstock recycling technologies using chemical
methods (Figure 2.2.1) overtook this recycling method.
As reported in Figure 2.4.1, this technology field can be
further broken down into two distinct categories.
Pre-consumer plastic-to-product recycling typically consists
of re-extrusion or closed-loop processes within factories,
where scrap plastics with similar features to the original
products are recycled. This process requires single types of
scrap polymer with virgin-like material and similar fea-
tures to the original products, making it dicult to apply
to post-consumer plastic waste. It has generated a stable
annual flow of 50 to 100 IPFs since the mid-1990s.
By contrast, post-consumer recycling technologies aim at
using recovered post-consumer plastic waste for the manu-
facturing of new products. Patenting activities in that field
increased dramatically in the late 1990s and subsequently
continued to grow. As a result, they accounted for the bulk
(86%) of IPFs in plastic-to-product recycling in 2019. Innova-
tion in that field typically aims to address the problem of
quality degradation caused by the recycling process.
Source: European Patent Oce








                                     
Post-consumer plastic to product Pre-consumer plastic to product
Figur e 2.4.1
Number of IPFs related to plastic to product recycling, 1980-2019




Earliest publication year
24
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Together, the top five and top ten applicants in plas-
tic-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.
Statistics on the geographic origins of IPFs highlight the
leadership of European countries in plastic-to-product
technologies, with combined shares of 34% and 35% of IPFs
in pre- and post-consumer recycling technologies between
2010 and 2019. The US ranks second in post-consumer
recycling with 26.5%, followed by Japan with 19%. Both coun-
tries have a stronger presence in pre-consumer recycling
(Japan has 25% and the US 24%), though fall well behind
EPC countries. The Republic of Korea and China have modest
shares of 2% to 4% in each field.
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.
Figure 2.4.2
Top 10 applicants in plastic to product recycling, 2010-2019
Bridgestone [JP]
Michelin [FR]
Procter & Gamble [US]
SABIC [SA]
Dupont de Nemours [US]
Eastman Chemical [UK]
BASF [DE]
Arkema [FR]
Unicharm [JP]
Solvay [BE]
     










Source: European Patent Oce
Source: European Patent Oce
1
Plastic to product
Post-consumer
Pre-consumer
 % % % % % % % % % %
Figure2.4. 3
Origins of IPFs related to plastic-to-product recycling, 2010-2019
36%
39%
25.3 15.5 5.0 5.4 9.4 4.2 3.04.9 12.1
13.1
22.6 19.0 6.4 16.1 11.911.1 3.3
36%
25.1 16.0 4.7 5.6 10.1 4.7 4.0 2.9 12.0
12.9
2.0
2.1
2.2 2.5 | 2.5 | 2.3
Number of IPFs
US JP KR CN Other non-EPC DE FR IT UK NL Other EPC
25
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BOX 1
University research on plastic recycling
As illustrated in Figure B1.1, upstream research in plastic
recycling is mainly focused on chemical and biological
processes, where universities and PROs contributed
nearly 20% of all IPFs between 2010 and 2019. In compar-
ison, the proportion of IPFs stemming from upstream
research was only 7.4% and 6.8%, respectively, in waste
recovery and plastic-to-product recycling. This reflects
the fact that innovation in both fields typically relies
on more standard and well-established technologies.
Europe contributes by far the largest share (34%) of
university IPFs in these two fields.
In terms of chemical and biological recycling methods,
the geographic location of the universities and PROs is
interesting. Figure B1.1b shows that European countries
and the US have a clear lead, with 29% each of the IPFs
stemming from upstream research from 2010 to 2019.
Europe is the only major innovation centre to contribute
more to IPFs in upstream university research than to all
IPFs in the field (26%, see Figure 2.5.3). By contrast, the
US's and Japan's contributions to upstream IPFs (29%
and 11%) are lower than their respective shares in all
IPFs (36% and 17%).
This suggests that Europe, despite being active in
related research is not exploiting its full potential when
it comes to transferring these technologies to industry.
A closer analysis of the IPFs originating from start-up
and scale-up companies also supports this finding
(Figure B1.2). Although the number of such IPFs in-
creased in roughly the same proportions in both regions
between 2010 and 2019, US start-ups and scale-ups
generated four times as many IPFs than their European
counterparts (338 versus 84) over the decade.
a) Share of IPFs generated by universities and PROs
b) Geographic origins of IPFs generated by universities
and PROs
Figur e B1.1
Upstream research in recycling technologies, 2010–2019
Waste recovery Plastic to pro duct Ch emical and biological
. % .%
.%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
Waste recovery Plastic to produ ct Chemi cal and biological
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
%
, %
, %
, %
, %
, %
, %
%
%
%
%
%
%
Source: European Patent Oce
Note: The geographic origins of the IPFs in Figure B1.1b are based on the country of the applicants.
Europe US CN JP KR Others
26
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Figure B1.2
IPFs originating from start-up and scale-up companies in chemical and biological recycling, 2010–2019
Note: The figure reports on start-up and scale-up companies listed on Crunchbase that have filed at least one IPF related to chemical and biological recycling
technologies in 2010-2019. Only companies founded after 2000 with fewer than 10 000 employees in their latest Crunchbase reporting have been considered.








         














Source: Crunchbase and European Patent Oce
Europe US Others
Earliest publication year
Number of IPFs
27
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2.5. Recycling methods:
chemical and biological recycling
Chemical and biological recycling technologies stand out
as the most important subfield of plastic recycling tech-
nologies in terms of the number of IPFs over the past two
decades. Chemical plastic-to-feedstock technologies, such
as cracking and pyrolysis, dominate here. Such techniques
make it possible to change the chemical structure of plastic
waste and convert it into a mixture of basic chemicals,
allowing for its flexible reuse in the petrochemical industry. 14
They are generally energy-intensive and involve a large
number of processing steps for separation and purification.
14 S ome basic chemicals are used to crea te new monomers but mos t of the mixture is
typically us ed for synthesising other ch emicals or is burned for energ y recovery.
Innovation in plastic-to-feedstock technologies reached a
peak in 2014, before declining rapidly. By contrast, the
number of IPFs related to plastic-to-monomer recycling
technologies, albeit smaller, remained relatively stable over
this period. These technologies can break long-chain
polymers into their constituting basic units, allowing for
repolymerisation with virgin-like quality and increased
recycling rates. They can be applied to a broad variety of
plastics, including polyamides, polyesters and rubbers.
Biological plastic-to-compost recycling processes recently
emerged and represent a comparatively small number
of IPFs. These technologies are promising for full circular-
ity. They refer essentially to the use of enzymes or living
organisms to degrade polymers to compost or to synthe-
sise useful compounds by biochemical transformation. As
shown in Box 2, this technology can also be used to
achieve depolymerisation through biological processes.









                                     
Plastic to feedstock Plastic to monomer Plastic to compost
Figur e 2.5.1
Number of IPFs related to chemical and biological recycling, 1980-2019



Source: European Patent Oce

Earliest publication year
28
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Chemical and biological recycling is the most concentrat-
ed field of waste recovery technologies, with 12% and 19%
of all IPFs generated by the top five and ten applicants,
respectively. It is characterised by a much stronger contri-
bution in fundamental research, with nearly 20% of IPFs
originating from universities and PROs in 2010–2019
(Box 1). Apart from German chemical company BASF, oil
and gas companies or dedicated PROs heavily dominate
the list of the top applicants.
From a geographical perspective, the US strongly domi-
nates innovation in chemical and biological recycling tech-
nologies for plastic. The US alone contributed up to 36% of
all IPFs from 2010 to 2019. In plastic-to-compost recycling,
the US contribution amounted to 42% of all IPFs over the
same period. With 26% of all IPFs in chemical and biological
recycling, Europe remains the second innovation centre
globally, closer to Japan (17%). This pattern can be observed
in all subfields of chemical and recycling technologies. It is
caused by Germany's modest performance, accounting for
only 6.7% of these recycling technologies from 2010 to 2019,
while generating up to 10% of IPFs related to waste recov-
ery and plastic-to-product recycling over the same period.
35.36
35.90
42.30
Figure 2.5.2
Top 10 applicants in chemical and biological recycling, 2010-2019
SABIC [SA]
Honeywell [US]
Royal Dutch Shell [UK]
BASF [DE]
Institut Français du Pétrole [FR]
Chevron [US]
Universal Oil Products [US]
Exxon Mobil [US]
Aramco [SA]
Total [FR]
      









Source: European Patent Oce

Figure 2.5. 3
Origins of IPFs related to chemical and biological recycling, 2010-2019
Chemical and biological
Plastic to feedstock
Plastic to compost
Plastic to monomer
% % % % % % % % % %
26%
15.16 3.20 4.14 6.59 5.39 11.1211.86
17.23 4.63 4.72 6.67 4.32 3.582.77 7.43
2.49 | 1.17
1.43
1.26
11.31
26%
26%
30%
33.21 19.61 5.12 5.01 7.30 3.474.69
13.11 3.85 3.93 4.94 4.24 3.483.30
6.45
9.0910.51
11.49
2.28 | 3.06 | 1.84
Source: European Patent Oce
Number of IPFs
US JP KR CN Other non-EPC DE FR IT UK NL Other EPC
29
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BOX 2
Enzymatic depolymerisation
Enzymatic depolymerisation is a new, promising ap-
proach to plastic recycling, based on the use of bacteria.
The process employs enzymes initially produced by
bacteria to selectively break down the polymers into
monomers, which can be more easily reemployed.
This approach overcomes the issue of degradation
of polymer properties in conventional recycling and
can be used on any type of PET plastic.
1996 1998 2001 2003 2004 2005            
   
 
       
Figure B2
IPFs in enzymatic depolymerisation
Bayer AG [DE]
AGC [JP]
Bridgestone [JP]
Carbios [FR]
Eurofoam [AT]
Fujitsu [JP]
Microbial Discovery [US]
Nihon Plast [JP]
Petrobas [BR]
Polymateria [UK]
Recircle [UK]
Toyo Seikan [JP]
Others
Note: The IPF data reported for 2020 may not be entirely complete.
Earliest publication year
Source: European Patent Oce
30
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Only a few companies are currently exploring this tech-
nology. However, recent progress has made it possible
for French company Carbios to initiate a commercial
recycling programme. Carbios has developed a process
to supercharge an enzyme naturally occurring in
compost heaps that normally breaks down the leaf
membranes of dead plants. By adapting this enzyme,
Carbios has fine-tuned the technology and optimised
it to break down any kind of PET-based plastics
(regardless of colour or complexity) into its building
blocks. These can then be turned back into virgin-quality
plastics, which are like new. The recycling process works
under mild conditions. Carbios claims that it could also
lower the carbon footprint of PET waste treatment by
saving 30% of CO2 emissions compared to a conventional
end-of-life mix of incineration and landfill, taking virgin
PET production substitution into account.
31
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Case study:
Higher-performance plastic recycling
Invention: Counter current technology
Company: EREMA Group
Sector: Green technology
Country: Austria
32
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There are few environmental issues more emotive than
plastic waste. While recycling seems the obvious solution to
a global problem, it is incredibly complex with no one-size-
fits-all approach. Each polymer requires a specific method to
reclaim reusable material. Moreover, sorting mixed plastics
with precision is not an easy task. To further complicate
matters, films can retain odours and printed plastics need to
be de-inked. Manufacturers supplying the food and cosmetic
industries have additional hurdles – strict regulations
dictate the types of packaging that may be used with food
or cosmetic products.
Klaus Feichtinger and Manfred Hackl (winners of the Euro-
pean Inventor Award 2019 in the Industry category) have
dedicated their careers to solving such technical problems.
For over 25 years, the Austrian inventors have worked at
EREMA, a subsidiary of EREMA Group GmbH, leading the
development of systems that enable industry to recycle and
reuse an increasingly wide variety of plastic waste.
Go against the flow
The group manufactures recycling systems that perform a
series of tasks. These include buering material in a cutter/
compactor, called a preconditioning unit (PCU), before
plasticising it in an extruder featuring a screw. Counter
current technology is one of the key innovations in these
systems. In older recycling systems, the material inside the
cutter/compactor would have been turned in the same
direction as the extruder screw. With counter current tech-
nology, waste enters the extruder but is rotated in the PCU
in the opposing direction to the flow of the extruder screw.
The process is like collecting water from a stream by placing
a cup against the movement of the water. Thanks to the
improved material intake, the output stays at a consistently
high level within a considerably broader temperature range
in the PCU. The invention enables the extruder to process
more waste material in less time at lower temperatures.
However, the complexity of plastic recycling means that
multiple technologies are needed to overcome specific
technical hurdles. Throughout their careers, Feichtinger and
Hackl have developed several innovations to make recycling
more economically viable and broaden the scope of recycla-
ble materials. These include processes to degas liquid, filter
melted plastics, remove organic waste and minimise odour.
When these processes are combined, complex materials
can be reprocessed and the end result – plastic pellets – are
indistinguishable from new plastics.
Closing the loop, growing the market
Currently, over 7 000 EREMA Group systems are in operation
worldwide, producing over 14.5 million tonnes of plastic
pellets every year. The group's turnover increased to EUR 250
million between 2020 and 2021 and they now employ over
660 people across five continents. Over the past three years,
they have invested approximately EUR 60 million in modern-
ising and expanding their facilities.
The market for plastic recycling is projected to reach EUR
54 billion by 2024 (PSI, 2019) due to several contributing
factors. In 2018, China announced that it would stop
accepting waste plastics shipped there from other countries.
Furthermore, some 43% of the EU's plastic waste is incinerat-
ed and 32.5% ends up in landfills (PlasticsEurope, 2020).
The EU's plastic strategy aims to improve these figures
through regulation that will make all plastic packing recycla-
ble by 2030. This combination of technology, market
forces, policy and increased public pressure to reduce the
impact of SUPs could pave the way to more sustainable,
closed-loop plastic production.
Drawing pages of EP2766158 B1
Drawing pages of EP2766158 B1
33
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Invention: Plant-based bioplastic
Company: Avantium
Sector: Green plastics
Country: The Netherlands
Case study: Plastics from plant starch
34
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Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the fourth most com-
monly used plastic polymer, utilised in applications ranging
from clothing to bottles. However, this versatility has an
environmental cost: PET production requires petrochemicals
made from oil and natural gas and the resulting polymer is
non-biodegradable. Substitutes for PET have been proposed
but a commercially viable option produced on an industrial
scale remains elusive.
Gert-Jan Gruter (European Inventor Award 2017 finalist, SMEs
category) overcame a long-standing challenge to enable the
development of a plant-based alternative to PET. The Dutch
scientist is currently Chief Technology Ocer at Avantium,
an Amsterdam-based company that develops technologies
using plant-based carbon sources.
Solving the riddle of the century
Polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a plastic based on plant
starches, is one alternative to PET. Many complex molecules
or polymers are made from simpler, intermediate chemicals.
Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) is the necessary intermediate
for PEF. Its easy production eluded researchers for over a cen-
tury. The approach most often used involved first creating a
precursor called 5-(hydroxymethyl)furfural (HMF) in water
and then oxidising it into FDCA, but this was never viable on
an industrial scale. Gruter went in a dierent direction, mak-
ing his precursor in alcohol solutions to create, for example,
methoxymethylfurfural (MMF) in a solution of methanol.
The resulting MMF was more stable and easier to oxidise
into FDCA, an essential building block for PEF.
PEF oers several advantages over petroleum-based PET.
Its greater strength means less material is needed to make
a bottle of the same size, thereby lowering production
costs. Additionally, it has better gas barrier properties. PEF
bottles are ten times more eective at blocking oxygen from
entering the container, keeping contents fresher for longer.
They also release CO2 more slowly, an essential property for
carbonated drinks. The plant-based plastic oers several
environmental benefits: the PEF manufacturing process
requires 70% less energy and releases one third of the carbon
emissions of PET production. Critically, PEF can be wholly
recycled and unlike many other polymers, small amounts
can be recycled alongside PET.
Green chemistry for a greener future
Avantium was initially spun o from petrochemicals mul-
tinational Royal Dutch Shell in order to accelerate catalysis
research. In 2006, the company began to expand its plant-
to-plastic innovations. Since then, their FDCA and PEF
technology has drawn investment from several companies
that recognise the potential for next-generation packing
material, including The Coca-Cola Company and Danone.
To meet potential demand, Avantium is planning invest-
ment in a flagship refinery in the Netherlands and exploring
potential licensing agreements with chemical companies,
converters and consumer brands.
The company continues to conduct research into polymers
and develop new products and processes using green
chemistry. These include: an ecient process to convert
plant-based sugars into a building block for PET or PEF-based
products; technology to convert waste or residual material,
such as forestry branches and bark, into higher-value indus-
trial sugars; and techniques to convert carbon dioxide into
high-value chemicals.
Several industrial players including Procter & Gamble, Evian
and Canon have been exploring the use of PEF in hygiene
articles, packaging and film. Once it has been shown that
production can be scaled up to be cost-eective, PEF could
achieve a rare feat: satisfying the demands of both industry
and conscientious consumers.
35
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3. Alternative plastics
36
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3. Alternative plastics
This section focuses on alternative plastics which encom-
pass bio-based, biodegradable and compostable plastics, as
well as plastics designed for easier recycling, such as vitri-
mers (covered in Box 3) or plastics made from CO2 (Box 4). 15
These materials have been an active field of research since
the late 1980s. They are interesting for the circular economy
because they could potentially provide an alternative to
fossil-based or non biodegradable plastics.
3.1. About bioplastics
For the purpose of this study, the definition of bioplastics
“includes all plastics that are either bio-based and/or biode-
gradable”. 16 However, the terminology remains a challenge.
The umbrella term bioplastics is generally used to describe
dierent materials, and the terms bio-based, biodegradable
and compostable are often wrongly used as equivalents.
The concept of bio-based plastics encompasses all plastics
that are fully or partially made from biological resources and
act as an alternative to fossil raw materials. They include
plastic materials that are produced from renewable bio-
mass sources and agricultural by-products, as well as from
used plastics by using microorganisms. Also included under
the term are chemically modified natural biopolymers and
polymers resulting from biosynthesis through man-made
cultivation and fermentation processes in industrial settings
(termed in this study "industrial natural polymers"). Natural
biopolymers are large, high-molecular weight molecules
with long chain-like struc tures commonly found in nature.
These form the building blocks of plant tissue (such as
cellulose and lignin) and animal tissue (such as chitin). The
chemical modification of natural polymers (after extraction)
allows to tailor their properties.
Besides allowing for a reduction in the carbon footprint
and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, some bio-based
plastics have the potential to be a renewable resource
through composting and biodegradation. 17 However,
it must be underlined that not all bio-based plastics are
compostable or biodegradable. The property of biodegra-
dation, where microorganisms found in the environment
convert the material into natural substances such as
gases, water, biomass and inorganic salts, is linked to the
chemical structure of the plastic rather than the source
of the material. In other words, 100% of a bio-based plas-
tic may not be biodegradable, while in some cases 100%
of a fossil-based plastic may be biodegradable. Therefore,
the full life cycle of bio-based plastics must be examined
before concluding that bio-based plastics may be benefi-
cial to the environment beyond the reduction in use
of fossil resources. 18
A distinct concept of “biodegradability” is used in the
study to account for all inventions related to plastics
(either made from bio-based or fossil-based materials)
claiming some degree of biodegradability, even if such
degradability is only possible under specific conditions,
such as high temperatures for instance.
Such biodegradable plastics can contribute to reducing
“unavoidable” littering. However, they do not fully solve
the littering problem as most currently available plastics
labelled as biodegradable generally only degrade under
specific conditions not easily found in the natural envi-
ronment. Biodegradation in the marine environment is
particularly challenging. Likewise, plastics that are labelled
“compostable” are not necessarily suitable for home
composting. A further important aspect is that some
plastics claiming biodegradability properties, such as
“oxo-degradable plastics”, have been found to oer no
proven environmental advantage over conventional
plastics, while their rapid fragmentation into microplastics
causes concern. These plastics should be used when it is
not possible to reduce, reuse or recycle.
15 https://ec.europa.eu/environment/topics/plastics/bio-based-biodegrada-
ble-and-compostable-plastics_en
16 A poli cy framework on bio -based, biodegradabl e and compostable plastic s in the EU
is planned, but no t yet published (see: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/topics/
plastics/bio-based-biodegradable-and-compostable-plastics_en).
17 As they allow for t he replacement of petro chemical feedstock b y feedstocks that
are renewable (inclu ding bio-based feeds tocks or biomass), bio-based p lastics
have the potential to r educe the direct carbo n footprint of plastic s. However, a full
assessment would als o require taking into account their po tential impact on land
use whenever th e feedstock is derived f rom biomass.
18 T his includes, for instance, the p otential impact of plas tics derived from bio -sourced
feedstoc k on the otherwise wild or ag ricultural land that may be used to grow t hat
feedstock .
37
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BOX 3
New plastic designs for easier recycling
Another research avenue towards circularity is designing
new polymers that can be recycled in an environmentally
friendly way. This approach relies on polymer synthesis
and the use of additives for easier recycling.
It also includes new emerging technologies, such as
covalent adaptable networks (CANs), including dynamic
covalent bonds and vitrimers.
Technologies focused on plastic design for easier recy-
cling started to emerge as a new research field in the
1990s and have been developing ever since. As illustrat-
ed in Figure B3, innovation in dynamic covalent bonding
drives the rapid growth of patenting in these fields.
This accounted for up to two-thirds of the IPFs related
to design for easier recycling in 2019. Dynamic covalent
bonding is a synthetic strategy employed to form 3D
networks of macromolecular chains. These are similar
to thermosetting polymers, with the dierence that the
cross-links are able to break and reform through reversi-
ble chemical bonding reactions. This dynamic reversibili-
ty can overcome the diculties typically encountered in
the processing and recycling of traditional thermosets
widely used in aerospace, construction, transport and
microelectronics.
Vitrimers are a recent and promising type of covalent
adaptable networks (CANs) based on a polymer network
that can shue chemical bonds through an exchange
reaction. The permanent degree of network connectivity
further increases the material's strength and stability,
without sacrificing recyclability. In addition, intrinsi-
cally self-healing vitrimers could potentially reduce the
obsolescence of damaged plastic products. This makes
them a promising candidate for replacing thermosets
in high-performance and lightweight applications.
They could potentially revolutionise entire industries,
including the production of composite parts for aircraft,
automotive, sports equipment and wind turbine blades
(see related case study: "Vitrimers").
As shown in Figure B3.2, Japan has built a strong lead
in dynamic covalent bonds, with nearly half (49%) of
related IPFs from 2010 to 2019. The US follows with 24%,
while European countries contribute only 17%. However,
most of the IPFs originating from universities and PROs
in the field originate from European and US research
institutions (40% and 30%, respectively), whereas Japan
has only 7%. The contrast is particularly striking between
Japan, which leads overall despite a small presence in
university research, and Europe, which contributes more
than twice as much to upstream university research
than to patenting activities overall in the field.





                                     
Easier recycling Dynamic covalent bonds Self-repairing Vitrimers
Figur e B3.1
IPFs related to design for easier recycling, dynamic covalent bonds, self-repairing polymers and vitrimers, 1980-2019





Source: European Patent Oce

Earliest publication year
38
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% % % % % % % % % %
US JP KR CN EPC Others
Source: European Patent Oce
% % % % % % % % % %
1.3
3.2 5.5 2.7 3.63.05.3
0.7|1.3
All IPFs: 17%
All IPFs
Universities and PROs
Figure B3.2
Origins of IPFs in dynamic covalent bonds, 2010-2019
24.4
40.0 6.7 10.8
48.9
30.0
2.5
US JP KR CN Other non-EPC DE FR IT UK NL Other EPC
10.0
39
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3.2. Overview of technology trends in bioplastics
Innovation in bioplastics took o in the 1980s and rapidly
grew until the 2008 economic crisis (Figure 3.2.1). Growth
resumed in 2012, albeit at a slower pace, before peaking
in 2014. This shows an almost perfect correlation with the
trend of IPFs for conventional plastics, suggesting that the
proportion of R&D dedicated to bioplastics has remained
stable since the 1980s.
A more granular analysis shows some divergences between
the dierent categories of feedstock comprised in bioplastics
(Figure 3.2.2). Chemically modified natural polymers gen-
erate the largest share of patenting activities, in particular
modified cellulose, modified other polysaccharides and other
modified natural polymers. Modified cellulose appears as a
relatively mature field, with the largest number of IPFs and a
relatively low share (9.2%) of IPFs stemming from research or-
ganisations. Progress in modified other polysaccharides and
other modified natural polymers appears more dependent on
fundamental research, with a respective 22.3% and 17.1% of
IPFs stemming from universities and PROs (Figure 3.2.3).
Among other bio-based polymers, polymers from
bio-sourced monomers have constituted the most
important, fastest-growing field and the one closest
to fundamental research over the past 20 years. Most
of the patents in this field relate to so-called “drop-in
plastics” (i.e. Bio-PE, Bio-PET, Bio-PA or Bio-PP), which are not
biodegradable. Such drop-in plastics are mainly of interest
because emissions of greenhouse gases and consumption of
non-renewable resources are reduced during their produc-
tion. They have the same chemical structure as their mineral
oil-based counterparts, and therefore the same properties,
performance and application versatility. This facilitates their
immediate use in the plastic production chain. For the
same reason, they also can be recycled within the same
recycling facilities as traditional plastics.

                                     
Bioplastics Conventional plastics benchmark
Figure 3.2.1
Growth of patenting in bioplastics versus conventional plastics, 1980-2019 (base 1 set in 1980)
.
.
Source: European Patent Oce

Earliest publication year
40
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19 The ar tificial spider silk derived f rom a patented industrial pro cess involving ge-
netically mo dified bacteria is an exampl e of industrial natural polyme r. Developed
by founder AMS ilk, a spin-o company from the Technical Uni versity of Munich
(TUM), this patente d process allows AMSilk to sell p urified silk protein ingredient s
in three produc t lines: first, cosmetic pr oducts including breathabl e silk gels and
controlled-r elease silk bead capsules for gels and c reams, etc.; second, medi cal
applications such as c oatings for medical implants; and finall y, a biodegradable
performan ce fibre called Biosteel, w hich is about 15% lighter than conventi onal
synthetic fibres.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Modifi ed
cellulose
Modifi ed
other
polysaccharides
Modifi ed
starch
Other modif ied
natural polymers
Polymers from
bio-sourced
monomers
Natural polymer s
produced in
industrial set tings
Bio-based
rubbers
Fossil-based
biodegradable
plastics
Biodegradable Not biodegradable
Source: European Patent Oce
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
-
Figure 3.2.2
Number of IPFs by categories of bioplastics, 1980-2019
Patenting activities in other bio-based polymers, such as
natural polymers produced in industrial settings and
bio-based rubbers, are modest but rising. Likewise, the
number of IPFs related to biodegradable feedstocks that
are not bio-based remains small, despite a strong increase
from 2015 to 2019. Industrial natural polymers, which
are made by mimicking nature in industrial set tings,
show interesting potential. 19 For instance, recent start-up
technologies make it possible to upcycle third-generation
feedstocks, such as food waste, into polyhydroxyalkanoates
(PHAs) using natural or engineered bacteria. PHAs are a
series of biocompatible thermoplastic polyesters with low
water permeability and high thermal resistance. These
oer potential for designing sustainable materials in a wide
range of applications: medicine, packaging, 3D printing
filaments, textiles, agriculture. They are reusable, recyclable
and can be readily broken down by microorganisms present
in most soils and marine and fresh water environments to
access stored carbon for use in their cellular metabolism.
The use of fungi to create bio-composites (see case study
"Eco-friendly packaging") is another promising approach.
Chemically modi fied natural polym ers Other bio-based pol ymers
41
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Within Europe, Germany leads in terms of the number of
IPFs but lacks specialisation. In contrast, France, the UK, Italy,
Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Denmark and Belgium
all show a specialisation in bioplastics. Apart from Germany,
Sweden is the only country in the European top ten not to
show a specialisation in bioplastics.
In terms of geography, Europe and the US strongly dominate
innovation in bioplastics, together generating 60% of the
related IPFs from 2010 to 2019 (Table 3.2.1). The US shows a
stronger specialisation in terms of both IPFs per capita and
RTA. Japan follows in the ranking with only 17.7% of IPFs.
With about 5% of IPFs each, the Republic of Korea and China
are significantly behind, at levels comparable to
large European countries, such as Germany and France.
Although Japan and the Republic of Korea show a high
number of IPFs per capita as is usual in these innovation-
intensive countries, all three Asian countries show a lack
of specialisation in bioplastics technologies, according to
the RTA indicator.
Modifi ed
cellulose
Modified other
polysaccharides
Modifi ed
starch
Other modifie d
natural polymers
Polymer from bio -
sourced monomers
Industrial
natural polymers
Bio-based
rubbers
Figure 3.2.3
Share of IPFs produced by universities and public research organisations, 2010-2019
Chemically modi fied natural polym ers Other bio-based pol ymers Fossil-based bio de-
gradable plastics
.%
. %
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
Source: European Patent Oce
Number of IPFs
2010-2019 *
Share of IPFs
2010-2019 *
IPFs
per mio capita *
RTA
2010-2019 **
EPC   .% . .
US   .% . .
EU   .% . .
JP   .% . .
DE   .% . .
KR   .% . .
CN   .% . .
FR   .% . .
UK   .% . .
IT   .% . .
CH  .% . .
NL  .% . .
BE  .% . .
ES  .% . .
SE  .% . .
DK  .% . .
* The number of IPFs per country is calculated based on the location of the inventors, using fractional counting in case of multiple inventors for the same IPF.
** The revealed technological advantage (RTA) index indicates a country's specialisation in terms of bioplastic recycling technology innovation relative to its overall innovation capacity.
It is defined as a country's share of IPFs in a particular field of technology divided by the country's share of IPFs in all fields of technology. An RTA above one reflects a country's speciali-
sation in a given technology.
Table 3.2.1
Origins of IPFs related to bioplastics, 2010-2019
Source: European Patent Oce
42
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BOX 4
Plastics derived from carbon dioxide
The organic chemistry and plastic sectors cannot be de-
carbonised as carbon is the main atom in their material
structures. However, the use of renewable carbon or CO2
for the synthesis of plastics can contribute significantly
to the circular economy. Unlike plant-based plastics,
CO2-based plastics feedstock production does not have
undesired side eects, such as impact on land use or
biodiversity. In addition, it decouples plastic production
from fossil feedstocks. Carbon emissions released during
the production process can be captured and returned
into the cycle.
Chemicals and polymers are already being produced
using renewable carbon from biomass and recycling –
and also directly from CO2. Due to CO2's inert nature, its
conversion routes are typically energy-intense and inef-
ficient. However, as more eective conversion processes
emerge, there is growing interest in using CO2 for the
production of chemicals and polymers. 20 The break-
through innovations for CO2 use have all been achieved
using specifically designed catalysts. CO2 is a thermo-
dynamically stable molecule so it requires a significant
amount of energy to be activated. Therefore, a catalyst
must be used to reduce that energy barrier.
As illustrated in Figure B4, new technologies are start-
ing to emerge among a small number of companies,
mainly in Europe and the Republic of Korea. A process
developed by German company Covestro deploys new
chemical catalysts to drive reactions between CO2 and
petroleum-based propylene oxide to create polymers
in a more sustainable and economically viable way.
The resulting polyol was introduced to the market by
Covestro, under the product name cardyon. It is al-
ready being used to produce soft foam for mattresses,
for adhesives in sports floors, padding in shoes and in
car interiors. Currently, plastic textile fibres are on the
threshold of market maturity. In recognition of their role
in developing this new technology, Dr Christoph Gürtler
(Covestro AG) and Prof Walter Leitner (Max Planck
Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion and RWTH
Aachen University) were selected as finalists in the 2021
European Inventor Award's Industry category.
20 Direct co mbination of CO2 with oxygen-c ontaining, ring-like molecule s called cyclic
ethers yield s linear chain polycarbonates (L-PCs), a pol ymer family distinguished by
some outs tanding properties. A lthough mechanically infer ior to and less thermally
stable than conve ntional polycarbonate s, L-PCs are b iodegradable and exhibit
excellent gas-barr ier properties, thus b ecoming attrac tive for packing applica-
tions. As of no w, however, L-PCs are mainly used for the produc tion of polyols,
chemical compo unds for poly(urethane) manufac turing. CO2 can also be used to
yield chemical co mpounds for polymer pro duction. This opens up the p ossibility
of obtaining a range o f thermosetting po lymers, such as urea-formaldehyd e (UF)
and melamine-formalde hyde (MF) resins, as well as engineering plas tics, such as
poly(oxym ethylene) or poly (methyl me thacrylate). In the former c ase, the UF resin
can be obtaine d from urea, which is directl y produced from react ing CO2 with am-
monia, and formaldehy de, which is obtained from CO2-der ived methanol. Similarly,
the ingredients f or MF resins are melamine, obtained fr om urea, and formaldehyde.
In the latter, POM may b e produced from CO2 via formic acid , and PMMA, from
methyl acr ylate obtained from CO2-derived methanol.
43
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2001 2003 2006 2007 2008 2009           
     
  
         
 
   
 
 
 
       
      
 
     
 

Figure B4:
Main applicants in CO2-based plastics
Bayer AG [DE]
BASF AG [DE]
Covestro [DE]
Rag-Stiftung [DE]
Repsol [ES]
Eni [IT]
Idemitsu Kosan [JP]
Ricoh [JP]
Sumitomo Bakelite [JP]
Sumitomo Seika Chemicals [JP]
LG [KR]
Research Institute of Industrial Science & Technology [KR]
SK Innovation [KR]
Dupont de Nemours [US]
Novomer [US]
Earliest publication year
Source: European Patent Oce
Note: Only applicants with at least three identified IPFs in the field are presented in this Figure.
44
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3.3. Innovation in bioplastics in selected
industry sectors
Figure 3.3.1 shows the distribution of IPFs related to bioplas-
tics by industrial sectors and cross-industry industrial
applications from 2010 to 2019, as well as the penetration
rate of those IPFs with respect to IPFs in conventional
plastic technologies.
Healthcare 21 is by far the most important industry in terms
of number of IPFs related to bioplastics, with more than
19 000 IPFs recorded, despite accounting for only a modest
share of the total demand for plastics (Figure 1.2).
However, bioplastic technologies have the highest pen-
etration rate in cosmetics and detergents. In that sector,
IPFs related to bioplastics are at 32% of the level of IPFs for
conventional plastics, compared with 18% in healthcare.
21 Healthcare is defined h ere as medical devices and me dicinal and dental prepara-
tions (e.g. pros theses, catheters , syringes, preparatio ns for dentistry, medicinal
preparations, ab sorbent pads); it does not in clude personal protec tive equipment.
22 More than half of the 6 40 0 IPFs are related to bio-sourc ed monomers.
23 This category re fers to any IPFs claiming a process to manu facture a polymeri c
article, inc luding dispersions, films, hydrogels, co mposites, membranes , coated or
treated poly meric articles, et c. Part of films is also in manufac turing (i.e. monolayer
films).
The packaging, electronics and textiles sectors are also
significant innovators in bioplastics, with 6 400, 22 4 500
and 3 300 IPFs, respectively, from 2010 to 2019. The penetra-
tion rate is among the highest in textiles (9%), as compared
with 6% in packaging and only 2% in electronics. Interesting-
ly, agriculture shows a high penetration rate (10%), despite
a low number of IPFs in bioplastics. In that sector, 2.5 times
more IPFs were recorded in 2019 than in 2010, in contrast
with the slow growth shown by other industries.
Figure 3.3.1 also provides a similar benchmarking for cross-in-
dustry applications of plastic technologies. Plastic films
generated the largest number of IPFs from 2010 to 2019,
followed by layered products. However, manufacturing 23
(15%) and inks and coatings (11%) show the largest
penetration rates.
Number of IPFs Penetration rate
Figure 3.3.1
Innovation in bioplastics for selected sectors and applications, 2010-2019
  35%
 
 
 
 
 0
Healthcare Packaging Cosmetics Electronics Tex til e Auto-
motive
Con-
struction
Agri-
culture
Films Layered
product s
Manu-
facturing
Inks and
coatings
Sectors Cross-industr y applications
 
   
   


 
    
 

%
%
%
%
%
Source: European Patent Oce
%
%
%
%
% %
% % %
%
%
%
%
Note: The penetration rate is defined as the ratio of the number of IPFs in bioplastics to the number of IPFs related to conventional plastics in the same sector.
Number of IPFs Penetration rate
45
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The top ten applicants in bioplastic technologies are listed
in Figure 3.3.2 for healthcare, packaging, cosmetics and
detergents. The top ten universities and PROs in bioplastics
are also listed. In healthcare, US companies represent seven
of the top ten applicants, with IPF portfolios of roughly
comparable sizes. The only exceptions are Novartis and
Sanovel Ilaç (pharmaceutical companies from Switzerland
and Turkey, respectively) and the University of California.
This US university also ranks top among academic appli-
cants, followed by four other US institutions, and five non-
US public research organisations from France (CNRS), the
Republic of Korea (KIST), Germany (Fraunhofer Institutes),
Singapore (A*STAR) and Chinese Taipei (ITRI).
Apart from Procter & Gamble, the top ten applicants in
packaging and cosmetics dier from those in healthcare.
There is, however, a strong overlap between packaging and
cosmetics, both of which are dominated by consumer
products and cosmetics companies, with US company
Procter & Gamble leading both sectors. In addition, five
other US or European companies are listed in both rankings
(Procter & Gamble, Henkel, BASF, Dupont de Nemours,
L'Oréal, Unilever).
Figure 3.3.2
Top applicants in bioplastics by selected categories, 2010-2019
Healthcare Packaging
Medtronic (US)
Johnson & Johnson (US)
AbbVie (US)
Sanovel Ilaç (TR)
Novartis (CH)
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (IL/US)
University of California (US)
Abbott Laboratories (US)
Procter & Gamble (US)
M (US)
     
Procter & Gamble (US)
Henkel (DE)
BASF (DE)
Kuraray (JP)
Dupont de Nemours (US)
Fujifilm (JP)
L’Oréal (FR)
Unilever (UK)
Toray Industries (JP)
Stora Enso (FI/SE)
         
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
.%
Cosmetics and detergents Universities and research organisations
Procter & Gamble (US)
L’Oréal (FR)
Henkel (DE)
Unilever (UK)
Colgate Palmolive (US)
Kao Corp. (JP)
Amorepacific (KR)
BASF (DE)
Shisheido (JP)
Dupont de Nemours (US)
University of California (US)
CNRS (FR)
MIT (US)
KAIST (KR)
University of Texas (US)
Harvard University (US)
Fraunhofer (DE)
A*STAR (SG)
ITRI (TW)
University Johns Hopkins (US)
     
Source: European Patent Oce


















46
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BOX 5
Additional circular strategies
The European Green Deal provides an action plan to
boost the ecient use of resources, prioritising the
reduction and reuse of materials. The SUP directive is
an important initiative in this context. Other examples
include single-use personal protective equipment (PPE),
such as the estimated 129 billion face masks and
65 billion gloves used during COVID-19. Innovation in
reusable PPE could be instrumental in reducing waste
while preserving the safety of healthcare workers.
Packaging remains the main target sector for the
implementation of ecient use strategies, with 39.6%
of the total demand for plastics in Europe in 2019
(PlasticsEurope, 2020) and 47% of global plastic waste
production (Smith and Vignieri, 2021). The industry is
exploring various circular options for plastics. As reported
in Figures B5.1 and B5.2, most related inventions focus on
zero waste strategies, such as edible packaging for food,
alternative distribution methods or cosmetics and de-
tergents in a solid form. Other circular strategies include
more sustainable end-of-life designs for plastic products
(see Box 3), as well as refill-reuse strategies.








         
Figur e B5.1
Number of IPFs related to circular strategies in packaging, 2010-2019
Zero waste End of life design Refill-reuse
Source: European Patent Oce
 
   

  
         
 
    
  
Earliest publication year
47
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Figure B5.2
Applications of zero waste inventions, 2000-2019
Food packagingRedesign of cosmetic products
Note: This Figure is based on the number of IPFs in each application field in the period 2000 to 2019 and based on the earliest publication year of the IPFs.
Source: European Patent Oce
1 665 2 035 1 436 1 280
1 197 1 158 6071 024
Solid
washing or
bathing
preparations
Solid
soap
bars
Solid shampoo
Detergents
in the form
of bars or
tablets
Solid
deodorants
Solid
toothpaste
Packaging that does
not create waste
(e.g. edible coatings for
foodstuff)
Techniques
relating to
preservation
and sale of
perishable
goods
546
Provision
of packaging-
free potable
water
48
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Invention: Packaging grown from mushroom mycelia
Company: Ecovative Design
Sector: Green technology
Country: United States
Case study: Eco-friendly packaging
49
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Approximately 40% of plastics produced is used in SUPs
(Geyer et al, 2017). Unfortunately, this results in a double
environmental burden. Firstly, the production of plastics
requires large quantities of oil or gas. Secondly, some
plastics are recycled but an overwhelming majority is either
burned, ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.
US entrepreneurs Eben Bayer and Gavin McIntyre (Europe-
an Inventor Award 2019 finalists in the Non-EPO countries
category) invented a biodegradable bioplastic that can be
used as an alternative to plastic and polystyrene foams.
Grown from mushroom mycelia, the new material can be
moulded into multiple shapes and products for a wide
variety of industrial and consumer applications. In 2007,
Bayer and McIntyre co-founded the company Ecovative
Design to commercialise their invention.
Forming a bond
Eben Bayer grew up on a farm, where he noted that
fungi acted like glue, binding wood chips together. While
at university, he met McIntyre and the two enrolled in
an innovation course called Inventor's Studio. They pitched
a mushroom-based glue idea to lecturer and mentor
Burt Swersey, who encouraged them to take the idea further.
As they conducted research, they realised that almost all
agricultural waste, such as corn husks, rice, or hemp, can be
bound together and the resulting material moulded into
various shapes.
Perfecting the new material was a process of trial and error
but their perseverance paid o. First, live mycelium is fed
agricultural waste at room temperature and harvested every
four to six days. Then, the shaped, non-toxic material is dried
and baked, rendering it biologically inactive. The result is a
material that can be recycled or composted, is biodegradable
within 45 to 180 days, and delivers a strength-to-weight ratio
similar to many plastic-based products. Its biofabrication
process uses between one-fifth and one-eighth of the
energy needed to produce plastic foams.
Today, the company has a library of 450 strains of mycelium
with varying properties, enabling the inventors to tailor their
products according to client requirements. During process-
ing, the material can also be adjusted to achieve a specific
density, strength or texture. This versatility has paved the
way to product lines that extend far beyond packaging.
Moulding a sustainable future
Ecovative continues to research new applications for their
material. After receiving a capital injection in late 2019, they
began building an advanced research facility that includes
custom-designed incubation devices and data analysis tools.
Through a growing network of licensing partners, many
mycelium-based products are now available in Europe, Asia,
Africa and Australia. These range from eco-friendly furniture
to home insulation, and from insulated jackets to foams for
footwear. The company has developed a mycelium alterna-
tive to leather and a meat substitute that can be infused
with flavour and used in vegan food products.
A recent EU Horizon 2020 collaboration between the Univer-
sity of the West of England (UK), Mogu S.r.l. (Italy), Istituto
Italiano di Tecnologia (Italy) and the Universitat Oberta
de Catalunya (Spain) showed that fungi can be incorporated
into smart, sustainable textiles. The building industry has
also shown interest in mycelium, exploring its use as a
thermal and acoustic insulation product. While these
applications are yet to be commercialised or are still at an
early phase, reducing plastic packaging waste by using a
cost-eective, biodegradable and sustainable alternative
is within reach.
50
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Invention: A new class of polymers
Company: Arkema France & CNRS
Sector: Material sciences/polymers
Country: France
Case study: Vitrimers
51
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Every day, we encounter various types of polymers. Each
has properties that make it suitable for a given application.
For example, thermoplastics such as PET and polystyrene
are mouldable via heating and can be recycled or reshaped,
making them ideal for packaging. On the other hand,
fibre-reinforced plastic composites and vulcanised rubber
are strong and durable types of thermoset plastics.
However, they cannot be reshaped once hardened and
are dicult to recycle.
Ludwik Leibler (European Inventor Award 2015 winner in
the Research category) invented a new class of polymer
that combines desirable properties of both thermoset and
thermoplastics. Dubbed vitrimers by the Polish-born
French scientist, the new plastic is robust, self-healing and
can be endlessly reshaped and recycled.
Like glass but unbreakable
Leibler and his team at ESPCI Paris Tech (Ecole Supérieure de
Physique et de Chimie Industrielles) studied thermosetting
plastics, where molecular bonds are not replaced once bro-
ken, causing the material to weaken and eventually fracture.
The researchers had a breakthrough when they began syn-
thesising a new material using zinc and carboxylic acid as a
catalyst. At 150°C they observed that the molecules changed
their binding partner without reducing the actual number
of bonds among the molecules. Eectively, for every bond
broken another new one formed. Using this method, the
team created vitrimers: a new plastic that is light yet robust
and malleable without liquefying.
When heated, vitrimers can be welded like metals, thereby
enabling complex shapes to be produced that ordinarily
would require moulding or intricate and expensive proce-
dures. However, even when hardened, the new plastic can be
reshaped and is therefore recyclable, taking an essential step
towards closed-loop plastic production. The new class of
polymers can replace current plastics in many applications,
ranging from aircraft components to self-healing suroards.
Currently, Leibler and other researchers are examining meth-
ods for converting common thermoplastics into vitrimers
using existing processing equipment.
From the lab to the world
Since Leibler's initial breakthrough, scientists from various
fields have explored new techniques to produce vitrimers
with wide-ranging properties. NASA-funded research found
that reversible adhesives could benefit in-space assembly,
allowing for the construction of larger and more complex
structures. In Europe, the EU-backed AIRPOXY consortium
was recently set up to reduce the production and mainte-
nance costs of composite parts in the aeronautics sector.
VITRIMAT is another EU-funded project, which aims to com-
bine the expertise and technologies of various academic,
technical and industrial partners to bridge the training gap
between research and commercial production.
While much of the work in this field still takes place in the
lab, some manufacturers are beginning to commercialise
products that can be used in sporting goods, automotive
parts or wind turbines. With ongoing research and policy
steering the future of plastics, vitrimers are set to become
part of our daily lives.
52
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Annex 1 Patent metrics
53
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The property rights granted by patents are strictly territorial.
To protect a single invention in multiple markets, a number
of national, regional or international patent applications
may be required. A large number of patent applications,
therefore, does not necessarily mean a large number of
inventions. A more reliable measure of inventive activity is
to count international patent families (IPFs), each of which
represents a unique invention and includes patent appli-
cations targeting at least two countries. More specifically,
an IPF is a set of applications for the same invention that
includes a published international patent application, a
published patent application at a regional patent oce
or published patent applications at two or more national
patent oces. The regional patent oces are the African
Intellectual Property Organization (OAPI), the African
Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), the
Eurasian Patent Organization (EAPO), the European Patent
Oce (EPO) and the Patent Oce of the Cooperation Coun-
cil for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCCPO).
IPFs are a reliable and neutral proxy for inventive activity
because they provide a degree of control for patent
quality and value by only representing inventions deemed
important enough by the applicant to seek protection
internationally (Dernis et al., 2001; Harho et al., 2003;
van Pottelsberghe and van Zeebroeck, 2008; Frietsch and
Schmoch, 2010; Martinez, 2011; Squicciarini et al., 2013;
Dechezleprêtre et al., 2017). A relatively small proportion
of applications meet this threshold, and this varies widely
across country of residence of the inventor and other impor-
tant vectors. As such, this concept enables a comparison of
the innovative activities of countries, fields and companies
internationally, since it creates a suciently homogeneous
population of patent families that can be directly compared
with one another, thereby reducing the national biases
that often arise when comparing patent applications across
dierent national patent oces.
Each IPF identified as relevant to plastic recycling or alterna-
tive plastics technologies is assigned to one or more
sectors or fields of the cartography. The analysis covers
the period 1980-2019. The date attributed to a given IPF
always refers to the year of the earliest publication within
the IPF. Unless specified otherwise, the geographic
distribution of IPFs is calculated using information about
the origin of the inventors disclosed in the patent applica-
tions. Where multiple inventors were indicated on the
patent documents within a family, each inventor was
assigned a fraction of the patent family.
Where necessary, the dataset was further enriched with
bibliographic patent data from PATSTAT, the EPO's
worldwide patent statistical database, as well as from
internal databases, providing additional information,
for example, on the names and addresses of applicants
and inventors, or whether the applicant is a company or
a research organisation. In addition, information was
retrieved from the Bureau van Dijk ORBIS (2020 version)
database and used to harmonise and consolidate applicant
names and their addresses. Each applicant name was
consolidated at the level of the global ultimate owner ac-
cording to the latest company data available in ORBIS.
If that information was not available, the data was cleaned
manually. The Crunchbase database (2021 version) was
also used to analyse the patenting activities of start-ups
in the field of chemical and biological recycling.
54
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Annex 2 Cartography of technologies
related to plastic recycling and
alternative plastics
55
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The patent cartography used in the study was assembled
from the intellectual input of patent examiners at the EPO
and developed and populated in the following three steps.
Step 1: Linking technology fields to the patent
classification scheme
Technology experts were asked to identify the technologies
relevant for plastic recycling and alternative plastics from
their areas of expertise (Table A1) and, together with patent
classification experts, to provide information about the
field ranges of the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC)
scheme in which the inventions of the dierent tech-
nologies can be found. The results were used to create a
concordance table of relevant technologies and CPC ranges.
The table contains around 780 dierent technologies with
assigned CPC field ranges in all technical fields and sectors
of the cartography scheme used in the study. The cartography
and the assignment of CPC ranges were verified by applying
ad hoc queries against the EPO's full-text patent database
and analysing the results. Anomalies were re-assessed and
corrected/amended where necessary.
Level 1 Level 2 Level 3
Collecting
Sorting and separating
Cleaning
Pre-consumer plastic to product
Post-consumer plastic to product
Plastic to feedstock
Plastic to compost
Plastic to monomer
Plastic to incineration or energy recovery
Modified cellulose
Other modified polysaccharides
Modified starch
Other modified natural polymers
Polymers from bio-sourced monomers
Natural polymers produced in industrial settings
Natural rubber and synthetic rubber from
bio-sourced monomers
Fossil-based biodegradable
Covalent adaptable networks
Others
Synthesis from CO
Self-repairing
Source: European Patent Oce
Table A1
Overview of the cartography
Plastic recycling
Alternative plastics
Others
Design for easier recycling
Bioplastics (bio-based and/or biodegradable)
Waste recycling
Waste recovery
56
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Step 2: Identifying patent applications
Upon identification of the relevant technology fields, a
distinction has been made between specific classes
(i.e. specific to the study) and non-specific ones. The specific
ones have been included in their entirety. The non-specific
ones have been combined with a set of semantic keywords.
On patent documents in these non-specific classes, full-text
search queries were applied to all published applications in
the respective CPC ranges in order to tag documents relating
to the concepts of plastic recycling and alternative plastics.
Some of the queries were also only full-text search queries.
Additionally, patent documents relating to the use of con-
ventional plastic technologies have been identified for some
industrial sectors and cross-sector industrial applications.
These have been used as benchmarks to allow comparison
of the number of IPFs in bioplastics with the number of IPFs
relating to conventional plastic technologies.
Step 3: Classifying patent applications to the
cartography fields
All CPC codes and tags assigned to all identified IPFs were
extracted and combined. The unique CPC classes and tags
for each IPF were then linked to the respective technology
fields and sectors of the cartography using the concordance
table from step 1. The details of all preparations can be
made available on request.
For the purposes of this study, the statistics on IPFs were
based on a simple count method, reflecting the number of
inventions assigned to a particular field or sector of the
cartography, independently of whether some of these in-
ventions were also classified in other fields or sectors.
57
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Published and edited by
European Patent Office
Munich
Germany
© EPO 2021
Authors
Maxime Dossin, Muzio Grilli, Dirk Marsitzky, Wibke Meiser, Yann Ménière,
Jeremy Philpott, Javier Pose Rodríguez, Cédric Rossatto, Ilja Rudyk,
Francesca Tassinari, Pauline Vandoolaeghe, Shaun Wewege (EPO)
Design
European Patent Office
The report can be downloaded from:
epo.org/trends-plastics
Where to get additional help
Visit epo.org
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Data on patent families is used in economic and statistical studies for many purposes, including the analysis of patenting strategies of applicants, the monitoring of the globalization of inventions and the comparison of the inventive performance and stock of technological knowledge of different countries. Most of these studies take family data as given, as a sort of black box, without going into the details of their underlying methodologies and patent linkages. However, different definitions of patent families may lead to different results. One of the purposes of this paper is to compare the most commonly used definitions of patent families and identify factors causing differences in family outcomes. Another objective is to shed light into the internal structure of patent families and see how it affects patent family outcomes based on different definitions. An automated characterization of the internal structures of all extended families with earliest priorities in the 1990s, as recorded in PATSTAT, found that family counts are not affected by the choice of patent family definitions in 75% of families. However, different definitions may really matter for the 25% of families with complex structures and lead to different family compositions, which might have an impact, for instance, on econometric studies using family size as a proxy of patent value.
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The renewal of patents and their geographical scope for protection constitute two essential dimensions in a patent’s life, and probably the most frequently used patent value indicators. The intertwining of these dimensions (the geographical scope of protection may vary over time) makes their analysis complex, as any measure along one dimension requires an arbitrary choice on the second. This paper proposes a new indicator of patent value, the Scope-Year index, combining the two dimensions. The index is computed for patents filed at the EPO from 1980 to 1996 and validated in its member states. It shows that the average value of patent filings has increased in the early eighties but has constantly decreased from the mid-eighties until the mid nineties, despite the institutional expansion of the EPO. This result sheds a new and worrying light on the worldwide boom in patent filings.