Patent Landscape Report on E-Waste Recycling Technologies

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The present Patent Landscape Report (PLR) forms part of WIPO’s Development Agenda project DA_19_30_31_01 (“Developing Tools for Access to Patent Information”) described in document CDIP/4/6 adopted by the CDIP at its fourth session held from November 16 to November 20, 2009. This report is prepared in the context of collaboration of WIPO with the Secretariat of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal (SBC, website:, which is administered by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report aims at providing patent based evidence on the available technologies and the patenting trends in the area of electronic waste (e-waste) recycling and material recovery, while it is intended to provide background and supporting information to the Partnership for Action on Computing Equipment under the Basel Convention and complement the Guideline on Material Recovery and Recycling of End-of-Life Mobile Phones and the Guideline on Environmentally Sound Material Recovery and Recycling of End-of-Life Computing Equipment. The report covers in detail patent applications and granted patents within the space of e- waste processing, and the recycling and recovery of materials from consumer products at the end of their useful life. Additionally, the report uses reference information such as news and other business data sources to extend the information into real-world applicability, and also to verify the interest and commercial activity of entities mentioned within the study. The patent landscaping process applied to the e-waste field has uncovered several interesting facets of the electronic waste industry. Specifically, the patent activity of global e- waste innovation points strongly to the commoditization of electronic waste; in particular as a source of high value materials, such as rare earth metals (e.g. lanthanum, neodymium and praseodymium) that are commonly used in modern electronic items. A similar trend is also shown for noble metals, in particular silver, but also gold and platinum. Confirming this trend are the high levels of patent applications from metallurgy and refractory corporations, such as JX Nippon Mining and Metals, Kobe Steel, Mitsui Mining and Smelting and others. These companies are not just applying for patents; they are in some cases investing heavily in them, seeking protection for their research in multiple jurisdictions around the world, in a process which adds substantially to the cost of patent prosecution. This is particularly the case for Japanese corporations where multiple translations into English, French and Chinese may be required. This commoditization of e-waste is evident in a certain level of specialization of commercial entities in different parts of the world. The International Labour Organization recently published a report on the flow of e-waste streams from developed economies such as Europe and the US to Asia, in particular to China and India. 1 From the patent analysis it is clear that for example domestic Chinese registered innovation tends to deal with the dismantling of electronic items, separation of waste streams and focuses on devices at a component level, e.g. printed circuit boards, batteries etc. Conversely, innovation from developed economies is more focused on the complete device, e.g. a television, computer or mobile phone. The clearest trend however is the emergence of Chinese domestic patent activity overall within the e-waste industry. Patent application rates have increased seven-fold in just 6 years, and is largely driven by academic institutions. This perhaps indicates the existence of incentive schemes for academic patent filing, a point bolstered by the fact that very few Chinese domestic patent applications are also filed in other jurisdictions – a common occurrence for patent rights from other territories. Therefore, it is difficult as yet to assert what the wider implication of this explosion of intellectual property (IP) activity in China will ultimately be. The huge growth also means that the majority of these patents are still applications, as applications tend to remain pending for a period of 4 years or more, and other metrics of patent quality such as citation rates and patent sales are also somewhat tied to age. Whatever the outcome, of no doubt is that Chinese innovation in the e-waste industry is occurring, and growing rapidly. Acting as a counterpoint to the quick emergence of China as a major source of inventions is the slump in activity of Japanese corporations. Measured as a whole over the last thirty years, Japanese consumer electronics and metals firms represent the largest and most dominant portfolios – entities such as Panasonic, Hitachi and Toshiba. However, the patent output of Japan in aggregate peaked in 2001 and has almost halved in the last 12 years, remaining stagnant at a new lower level for the last 5 years. Overall, patent activity within e-waste closely mirrors the rate of growth exhibited by mentions of the topic in the media, confirming that growing economic interest in dealing with end-of-life electronics is occurring alongside and spurring on global innovators.

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