Japan's Fujitsu Ltd., which in 2002 became the first computer maker to use biodegradable plastic, sees plant-based polymers as an important part of its future. But for the moment, at least, trying to go green is not helping the company stay in the black.
The Kawasaki-based firm is on the leading edge of information-technology companies using bioplastics, and is doing research with bioplastic material makers like Japan's Toray Industries Inc. and France's Arkema Group. It started using polylactic acid in its notebook computers six years ago, and today some of its laptop housings contain 30-50 percent bioplastics.
Because bioplastics are much more expensive than traditional plastics and consumers will not pay more for bioproducts, Fujitsu said it winds up making less money on each bioplastic computer. It's a dilemma faced by many early adapters.
The company remains committed to bioplastics, however, because it sees understanding them as an important part of its long-term goal of building a more sustainable manufacturing platform, said Michinori Kutami, general manager of Fujitsu's sustainable development planning division.
``We would like to expand this technology to many kinds of IT equipment, but we cannot because of the cost,'' he said, describing it as a ``significant'' problem.
The firm does not have specific targets for future uses of bioplastics, but it does want what it calls ``supergreen products'' like the Biblo laptop to make up 20 percent of its product mix in 2009, Kutami said in an interview at the firm's headquarters.
Bioplastics are a key technology to realize that goal.
They can, for example, cut the carbon footprint of a computer part by half compared with conventional petro-based plastics, over the life cycle of the component, Kutami said.
To make it more practical, though, he said the plastics industry must do more to reduce the cost of bioplastics.
He also said governments need to encourage companies to use bioplastics by developing stronger green procurement systems and lowering taxes on products with smaller carbon footprints to nudge consumers to buy more environmentally friendly products.
``In the future, [consumers'] motivation will be higher than now, I think,'' Kutami said. ``We expect and we hope that the customers' level [of interest] will be higher and they would like to buy green products.''
Now, the company uses bioplastics in one model of notebook computer in each of its three product seasons every year.
He said PLA is used in rigid parts like the housing, while Fujitsu uses a castor-oil based polyamide it developed with Arkema in 2006 in hinges and other flexible parts, including in mobile phone connectors.
Fujitsu also uses bioplastics in small parts in document scanners, thumb print authentication systems and supermarket point-of-sale systems.
For now, bioplastics are limited to smaller parts because the materials are not strong enough for larger parts. The company is researching how to strengthen them, he said.
Bioplastics use is its only attempt at developing ``greener'' materials. The firm earlier this year came out with its WoodShell concept computer, made mostly from forest-thinned cedar and bioplastics, as part of a traveling exhibition of Japanese product design.
Kutami said the company is also researching how to make biopolymers from the nonedible parts of corn and other materials. As bioplastic demand and world population both grow, societies will need to be able to secure biopolymers without using any potential food supply, he said.
While bioplastics are important for reducing environmental impact, in some cases the material choice can play a relatively small role.
In computer servers that run 24 hours a day, for example, by far the biggest environmental impact is from electricity use, so the company focuses its efforts on reducing energy use, Kutami said.
In products that aren't energy hogs, such as laptops, materials choice can have a greater impact on the product's overall environmental impact, he said.
An even larger issue for the firm, he said, is how Fujitsu's products can reduce carbon dioxide emissions in society, he said. IT products account for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but better use of IT equipment has the potential to cut emissions by half for the industries and activities that emit the other 98 percent, Fujitsu said.
Introducing equipment that enables better teleconferencing, e-learning or intelligent traffic control, for example, can change behavior that reduces the need to travel or makes car travel more efficient.
While some have questioned whether the economic downturn and recent slide in oil prices will hurt the developing biopolymers industry, Kutami said in a Dec. 22 e-mail that the dramatic price drop for oil-based plastics in the past few months has not lessened the company's interest in bioplastics.
``Our company's plans for bioplastics have not changed,'' he said. ``We are developing this bioplastics technology to realize [a] low-carbon society.''