Japan Turning to Biodegradable Materials For Packaging

Japanese manufacturers are heeding to international pressure surrounding its reliance on single-use plastics for packaging and are now weighing up alternatives, according to reports.

Nikkei’s Asian Review writes that the second-largest producer of waste per capita behind the U.S. is now looking to kick its single-use plastic habit, quoting Kenji Fuma, founder and CEO of environmental consulting company, Neural.

“Many plastic makers seem to have taken countermeasures to curb plastic waste in the last year or so,” Kenji Fuma said. Fuma conceded that “this is pretty late compared to many foreign companies.”

Shosuke Kiba, chief investment officer at Tokyo’s Universal Materials Incubator - a private investment company with a mission to increase Japan’s presence with biodegradable packaging - said “major companies have only recently been opening up to innovation, as well as to partner with other companies or startups.”

“I believe a lot of new movements will emerge going forward,” he said. “Biodegradable materials will be a key theme for major material and chemical companies from now on.”

The report comes just weeks after Kaneka, a Japanese materials maker announced a 10-billion yen (USD $91-million) investment into the research, development and production of biodegradable plastics by 100 times; bringing its capacity to 100,000 tonnes per year.

Kaneka said the demand for biodegradable plastics “has been increasing” ever since European authorities outlawed non-biodegradable plastic less than 50 microns in thickness back in 2016.

Japan’s largest plastic bag supplier for grocery stores, Fukusuke Kogyo is currently in preparation for a transition where consumers will be legally obligated to pay for plastic bags. If this happens, according to a spokesperson for the company, “demand will decrease to one-third or one quarter.”

They went on to explain that “we want to establish production of biodegradable plastic films, which is currently under development, as soon as possible to serve the needs of society.”

The move was echoed by Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings who said it is shifting its production of general purpose to high-grade products in its electric vehicles. “Investment for advanced materials is increasing,” according to a spokesperson. Mitsubishi is one of eleven companies that have kickstarted a fund, now worth $55 million for use to fund startups around the world that are researching and developing new materials.

“By standing together, we can secure a certain scale of money to push advanced materials development forward,” the Mitsubishi spokesperson said.

Seven & I Holdings, parent company of the Seven-Eleven convenience store chain earlier this week announced its plan to make the switch from plastic bags to paper bags; this would take effect by 2030, however.

Nippon Paper, which has seen a sharp decline in revenue following the drop in newspaper sales is planning to start the production of ‘paper-based barrier materials’ in Finland this year. “Our efforts happened to match global trends,” the company said in a statement.

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