Plastic fantastic: innovators pile into eco-market


David Walsh, Sarah Abou-Shehada and Chris Mason

Plastic fantastic: innovators pile into eco-market

MikeDotta /

Bioplastics are a hotbed of innovation—just look at the patent data, says David Walsh, Sarah Abou-Shehada and Chris Mason of Appleyard Lees.

Innovation in bioplastics—based on global patent activity—is at its highest point for almost two decades, while investment in plastics recycling technology is accelerating, says a report on green tech published by Appleyard Lees.

The inaugural “Inside Green Innovation: Progress Report 2021” analyses patent filings relating to several key environmental challenges facing the world, including the development of bio-derived, biodegradable and recyclable polymers—also known as bioplastics.

The report points to technology advances in optimising bioplastic production and improving its properties to provide the performance and longevity expected by consumers. Meanwhile, chemical recycling technologies are offering potential options to reduce waste plastic going to landfill.

Finding an inexpensive alternative to existing plastics with similar performance which impacts the environment less is a challenge. Before the world shifts to using biodegradable or at least bio-derived plastics, the functionality of these materials will likely need to approach that of existing plastics.

However, trends in bioplastic patent filings indicate that innovation is thriving and with legislative pressures to increase bioplastics use in industrial and consumer goods, innovation and patent filing activity is unlikely to slow down.

Bioplastics patent activity: a renewed focus

The number of patent filings in 2020 suggests a renewed upsurge in bioplastics innovation activity, despite a relative decline since 2003.

The types of innovation shown in patents among the leading filers includes a focus on biopolymer composition and structure, such as biodegradable materials used in orthopaedic medical devices and cleaning products.

Investment in developing new, biodegradable polymer blends is also aimed at creating greater bioplastic strength and flexibility while other biopolymer compositions are designed to make plastic bags both biodegradable and easier to open.

Other sustainable applications using polymers include eco-friendly wallpaper and a sensor to measure soil temperature and humidity.

Recent patent filings have been driven by organisations in Europe, South Korea and Japan, though previously leading Japanese companies such as Toray Industries have fallen behind German and Korean businesses BASF and LG Chemical in bioplastics filing volume.

Plastics recycling: finding alternatives to mechanical recycling

Analysis of patent filings in plastics recycling technology shows that innovation is gathering speed and is likely to continue.

US-based Eastman Chemical Company, a speciality materials company, is a top patent filer in plastics recycling, along with Bridgestone, Chevron and Solvay.

Eastman’s filings since 2018—which reference 12 out of 20 patent families filed by Saudi Aramco subsidiary, SABIC, in 2015 and 2016—suggest an explosion of innovation in the field, especially connected to an improved process for pyrolyzing mixed plastic waster (breaking down and recycling polymers).

Plastics innovation: the future

This patent filing data shows that activity remains focused on improving the mechanical properties of bioplastics for mass production and the bulk of patent filings seem set to emphasise iterative and bespoke improvements.

The adaptability of plastic is also a part of the problem, as many end-use applications require adaptions to polymers and moulding compositions to achieve specific performance.

Replicating this using bioplastic requires similar levels of tweaking and bespoke production.

And, in plastics recycling, while there is innovation in pyrolysis techniques Appleyard Lees anticipates increased patent activity in enzymatic breakdown of existing polymers and see early indications of interest in ring opening polymerisation and ring closing depolymerisation.

Overall, the “Inside Green Innovation: Progress Report 2021” aims to by-pass the environmental rhetoric and highlight the true state of progress in developing new, sustainable technologies.

The patent system requires public disclosure of new innovations, providing a valuable resource to identify which innovations could bring new advantages to the world.

The report’s focus on plastics (along with energy and agriculture) was chosen because of its prominence in the global green innovation conversation, as referenced in the OECD’s and United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) Green Innovation Database, a global innovation catalogue that connects needs for solving environmental or climate change problems with sustainable solutions.

“Inside Green Innovation: Progress Report 2021” is available to read here.

David Walsh is a partner at Appleyard Lees. He can be contacted at:

Sarah Abou-Shehada is a trainee patent attorney at Appleyard Lees. She can be contacted at:

Chris Mason is a senior associate at Appleyard Lees. He can be contacted at:

Bioplastics, innovation, patent data, Appleyard Lees, recycling, technology, biopolymer