Japan is one of the hot spots today for using plant-based plastics, with grocery chains, carmakers and electronics firms all taking a serious look at the materials, and some, like Fujitsu Ltd., making a splash with a notebook computer housing made partially from corn-based polylactic acid resin.
Japanese firms are taking a keen interest in bioplastics, and the country's government in 2002 set the ambitious goal that 20 percent of plastics used in Japan should come from renewable feedstocks, rather than traditional petrochemicals, by 2020.
Plastics News sat down with Japanese bioplastics industry officials during a recent trip to the country to take a look at developments. The picture that emerged is of an industry very interested in testing new applications, but one that, in spite of the government's bold goals, does not seem to be any closer than other countries to seeing bioplastics sprout.
Bioplastics remain, at most, at about 1 percent of the country's plastic market, said Isao Inomata, adviser to the Japan BioPlastics Association, in a July 25 interview in Tokyo. That's in line with other estimates of bioplastics use worldwide.
Tokyo-based JBPA estimated in 2005 that the Japanese market for biodegradable plastics, which would not include the broader category of bio-based materials, was just 66.1 million pounds out of a total plastics market of about 31 billion pounds.
It may not be much larger today, as the materials still are relatively expensive and supplies can be limited, although those conditions are changing, Inomata said.
Still, it would be wrong to think progress isn't being made, he said. There is a lot of key work going on as companies search for alternatives for increasingly expensive petrochemical plastics and spend time getting familiar with biomaterials, the technology needed to process them and what can be manufactured.
Mazda Motor Corp., for example, said in June it entered into a research project with a Japanese university to develop a biomass-based plastic with enough strength and heat resistance to be used in car bumpers and instrument panels.
Also, Mitsubishi Chemical Corp. in May launched a three-year research project to develop a bio-based polycarbonate, along with a biodegradable polymer.
Inomata said that while many projects may be pilot scale or limited to the Japanese market, he compared bioplastics developments today with Toyota Motor Corp.'s lengthy research on its Prius hybrid-electric car, before the right market conditions existed.
``Of course there are demonstration projects still, but [companies] actually utilize the bio-based plastics for their products so they can accumulate processing technology,'' he said. ``That is their target. Many Japanese companies like electronics and automobile makers have the concept that environmentally friendly products will be good business in the medium term.
``If that time comes, it is too late to start their development to accumulate the technologies,'' he said.
To help develop the market, JBPA in 2006 started what it claims is the world's only certification program for products containing biomass-based plastic content, said JBPA's general manager, Kohnami Setsuo. The program includes a logo easily recognizable by consumers.
The JBPA certification, called BiomassPla, said products must contain 25 percent bio-based plastic by weight. So far, JBPA has certified 51 products, from bags and bottles to printer parts and film.
Consumer attitudes are changing in the country, industry officials said. Many consumers in Japan are asking for more information about a product's environmental impact, and terms like carbon footprint and life-cycle analysis are becoming very mainstream, said Yasunari Hotani, the Tokyo-based managing director of Japan for PLA maker NatureWorks LLC.
Japanese beer maker Sapporo, for example, said in June it would put carbon-footprint data on its Black Label-brand beer, a step that Hotani called ``very epoch making.''
Food packaging, films and nonwoven applications have been the big markets thus far for NatureWorks in Japan, although the company did supply the PLA to Fujitsu's notebook computer and it is interested in durable goods applications, he said. Japan is about 10 percent of NatureWorks' total sales, Hotani said.
In food packaging, the company is supplying to Japanese supermarket and convenience store chains, including Lawson, FamilyMart and Uny. It often has success with the third- or fourth-ranked companies in the market that are more willing to try a new packaging material to set themselves apart, Hotani said.
NatureWorks is a joint venture between U.S. agricultural firm Cargill Inc. and Japanese chemical maker Teijin Ltd.
JBPA's Inomata shied away from making any firm predictions about how quickly Japan's bio-based plastics market will develop.
``The trend is increasing, that is certain, but how much depends on the situation, not only the market but also the technologies,'' he said.
Whether biomaterials can become 20 percent of the plastics market, or 5 percent, depends on technology developments such as how quickly firm can make bioplastics from nonedible agricultural supplies. Currently bio-based plastics use edible foodstuffs as raw materials, he said.
The Japanese government does not provide any direct subsidies to the bioplastics industry, and it's very difficult to convince the government to write a law banning or favoring a specific product, like the plastic bag bans becoming common in other countries, Inomata said.
Still, he said, the government is providing support for basic-level research, such as on making bioplastics from nonfood agricultural products.