Bioplastics, which are made from renewable resources and are biodegradable, have been rapidly gaining popularity in recent years. With the Japanese government’s promotion of bioplastics, companies are increasing production of existing products and developing new ones. The challenges are to further reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing and use, and to improve functionality in terms of color, strength, and degradability under actual use. The “Roadmap for the Introduction of Bioplastics” formulated by the Japanese government in January 2021 set a target of introducing approximately 2 million tons of biomass plastic products in Japan by 2030.
Demand for bioplastics is increasing due to the introduction of a fee for plastic shopping bags in July 2020, the “Law Concerning the Promotion of Resource Recycling of Plastics,” which came into effect in April 2022, and growing environmental awareness among consumers, but of the of the approximately 9.92 million tons (2018) of plastic consumed annually in Japan, only about 41,000 tons is biomass plastic and 4,000 tons is biodegradable plastic. This is due to the fact that, in addition to its high cost, it is inferior to conventional plastics in terms of durability, strength, and production capacity, making it insufficiently competitive in the market. It has also been pointed out that in the case of biomass plastics, the biomass used as raw material competes with food. In response to the government’s initiative to promote bioplastics, various efforts are being made in both industry and academia to overcome these weaknesses of bioplastics.
According to a report by the European Bioplastics Association, global bioplastic production capacity was approximately 2,217,000 tons in 2022 and is expected to triple to 6,291,000 tons by 2027. In March 2023, it was revealed that President Biden of the United States had set an ambitious goal of switching 90% of plastics to biomass plastics by 2043, and that he had begun to consider concrete measures to achieve this goal. In response to the increasing global demand for bioplastics, countries are moving to increase production.
From the viewpoint of transportation efficiency, biomass plastic is often produced in Brazil and Thailand, which are sugarcane, corn, and cassava producing countries. The Thai government has taken a proactive stance in promoting the use of biomass plastics by offering tax credits to companies that use biomass plastics. On the other hand, Japan relies on imports for the majority of its biomass plastic, and is said to be lagging behind the global trend. As a provisional measure to promote the utilization of bioplastics, import tariffs on biopolyethylene, a typical biomass plastic, have been eliminated from April 2019, but the development of competitive domestically produced products and the establishment of supply chains are challenges.
However, Japanese manufacturers are also working hard to develop new products to meet the growing demand for bioplastics. In January 2022, Ricoh conducted test sales of PLAiR, a new product made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is made from starch, and finely foamed with a proprietary technology using CO2. The product sold on this occasion was a rolled sheet of PLAiR. It has cushioning and heat insulation properties, and in addition to use as a cushioning and packaging material, it was also envisioned for processing applications such as die-cutting, printing, and welding.
Biomass Resin Holdings and Sanyo Kasei announced in December 2022 that they are developing new agricultural materials using Neolisa, a biodegradable plastic jointly developed by Biomass Resin Holdings and Kyoto University. The material will be applied to “slow-release fertilizers,” in which fertilizers are wrapped in a plastic film and applied to the soil, allowing the ingredients to gradually dissolve out. The company believes that if the film is made of a material that biodegrades after the fertilizer is applied, plastic pollution of soil, rivers, and oceans can be prevented. The company has already succeeded in controlling the rate at which fertilizer components dissolve into the soil while maintaining biodegradability and providing a slow-release property, and is aiming for practical application.
In December 2022, RIKEN TECHNOS announced “Natural RIKEBIO,” a biomass plastic that can adjust the type and ratio of biomass resources according to customer needs. In addition to the biomass ratio, the texture and color can also be adjusted. When biomass is added to polypropylene (PP), the base raw material, up to 60% can be derived from biomass. In addition to PP, biomass can also be added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) to make plastics. The highly customizable nature of this technology is a selling point, as it can be given functions according to the application.
In May 2023, the Mitsubishi Chemical Group began providing samples of DURABIO, a plastic product containing biomass plastics, with a higher ratio of biomass plastics. The new product is a compound derived from plant-derived starch and sugar, and is a raw material originally developed by MCHC. The new product has a biomass plasticity of approximately 74%, an index of biomass content set by the Japan BioPlastics Association and others, a significant improvement from the previous product’s highest biomass content of approximately 58%.
In addition to the development of materials, development related to scaling up production is also active. In Japan, companies involved in manufacturing bioplastics are increasing production.
Kaneka plans to expand production facilities for Green Planet, a biodegradable biopolymer it markets, to produce 20,000 tons per year by 2024. Brand Name. Using vegetable oil (palm oil) as raw material, the company cultivates genetically modified microorganisms (hydrogen bacteria) in a closed system to accumulate PHBH in the bacteria and extract it to produce PHBH.The company started production in 2011 on the scale of 1,000 tons per year, and raised it to 5,000 tons per year in 2019, taking full advantage of the opportunity to significantly increase production. In addition to expanding its production and sales system in Japan, the company is also building a large-scale supply chain for bioplastics, including overseas.
In June 2022, Dentsu Promotion Plus, a subsidiary of the Dentsu Group, announced that it had established a supply chain for PLANEO, a plant-derived biomass plastic, mainly at its overseas bases, in collaboration with Business Innovation Partners (Saiwai-ku, Kawasaki City; Hitoshi Nasukawa, President), a company involved in research and development of bioplastics. PLANEO will be developed in 2021, and although it was initially manufactured in Japan, DIC has increased its production bases and begun mass production.
In March 2023, DIC announced that it and Idemitsu Kosan had begun studying the possibility of building a new supply chain for biomass polystyrene. This biomass polystyrene is made from “biomass naphtha,” which is made from plant-derived naphtha normally obtained from petroleum. Biomass naphtha is produced by Idemitsu Kosan, and DIC produces styrene monomer from biomass naphtha, which is then used to make biomass polystyrene. Production of this biomass plastic is scheduled to start at DIC’s Yokkaichi plant by the second half of 2023.
In April 2023, Idemitsu SM of Malaysia and Petrochemicals of Malaysia, both subsidiaries of Idemitsu Kosan, obtained ISCC PLUS certification, an international certification system that manages and ensures supply chains using sustainable raw materials such as biomass. Idemitsu Kosan aims to build a supply chain in Southeast Asia by procuring diverse biomass feedstocks and selling biomass plastics in cooperation with its subsidiaries as well.