A newly published report from information services and analytics company Clarivate Analytics Plc exploring the bioplastics innovation landscape draws a number of sobering conclusions.
The authors of ‘From the Plastics Present to a Sustainable Future' describe the sector as very immature, with ‘no company or entity having a dominant or indeed competitive advantage position over any other’.
However, where immaturity exists, so does opportunity, they were quick to add.
The report also looked at the number of patents filed for bioplastics packaging and compared these to overall number of patents filed. Somewhat surprisingly, the rise in patent activity in the area of bioplastics activity was found to map very closely to the overall patent activity rise.
“The conclusion is that while biodegradable and compostable packaging is a key issue for consumers and regulators, it is not exhibiting fast growth – despite percentage increases of between 58% and 70% from 2012 to 2017. This is because, according to the Derwent World Patents Index, patent volumes generally grew 70% over the same period,” write the authors.
Moreover, it was found that 40% of all inventions are held by organisational applicants with just a single invention, while only 7% of bioplastics packaging in food, beverage and cosmetics patent applicants hold 10 or more inventions.
“This revelation should act as a wake-up call for companies that sell products to retailers, consumers and their supply chain that more focus and investment is desperately needed,” the authors conclude. The innovation profile is spread across the supply chain of packaging, from academia through to fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) firms performing and patenting research.
With bioplastics in many cases still playing catch-up with conventional plastics with regard to mechanical properties, 488 inventions cited mechanical strength as the motivation for the invention, compared to 331 for biodegradable properties.
Compared to the over 359 million tons of plastics produced annually, the 2.11 million tons of bioplastics produced globally last year is a drop in the ocean, leading the authors of this report to qualify this market as still relatively 'small and nascent'. The economics of production are an inhibiting factor, holding back the sector’s growth and development.
From a commercial and trademarks perspective, biodegradable or recyclable plastics are not yet commercially attractive options. They currently comprise just 8% of total plastics trademark applications filed at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO).
Until the economics of production for bioplastics improve, the adoption of bioplastics will continue to be slow, says Clarivate.
The good news is that developments are taking place and new bioplastics based on a variety of feedstocks are being explored. The reality is, moreover, that the current situation around plastics and plastic waste cannot endure. Reducing waste is only one piece to solving the plastics conundrum. Creating greater opportunities for re-use of existing plastics is another, and global discussions surrounding the circular economy for plastics have gathered steam. In 2018, the EC adopted a European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy, and bioplastics innovation is included as part of the approach towards a climate neutral economy.
"Our report reveals plastic is, and will continue to be, a part of our daily life. However, investments in the further development of bioplastics, re-think of traditional plastics design or responsible usage and disposal, will help reduce dependence on traditional plastics" said Jeff Roy, President, IP Group at Clarivate.
As the world seeks credible alternatives to plastics, we can expect more innovation and the continued growth of bioplastics.