Photo/IllutrationA Japanese rhinoceros beetle model made of bark-derived plastic (Rui Hosomi)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Tokyo-based car accessory maker Mirareed started a project in 2014 to develop eco-friendly bioplastics, using plants and other biological resources.

In the project, thinned Japanese cypress wood from Owase, Mie Prefecture, tea leaves from Kakegawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, and lotus root from Tsushima, Aichi Prefecture, as well as rice hulls and bark, are used to make plastic.

Those ingredients are crushed at Mirareed’s plant in Ichinomiya, Aichi Prefecture, and then mixed with petroleum-derived plastic resin to create plastic pellets. The pellets are provided to molding firms, so they can be turned into and marketed as construction materials to produce gardening goods and wood-like decks.

Mirareed makes 2.4 tons of plastic pellets a day.

“There is only a limited amount of oil resources,” said Katsumoto Higashiyama, president of Mirareed. “Use of bioplastics will also lead to reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.”

Mirareed is on the cutting edge as production of new, eco-friendly plastics is increasing amid rising global sentiment against the environment-damaging materials.

Aggressive efforts are being made to develop plant-based bioplastic and plastic that can be dissolved with the help of microorganisms, as pelagic microplastics, which are generated when plastic waste is degraded and broken down into tiny pieces measuring 5 millimeters or smaller, are drawing increasing attention as a cause of marine pollution.

The European Commission has proposed a plan to ban the distribution of straws and other goods made of plastic, accelerating the worldwide trend toward a plastic-free society.

Under such circumstances, Japanese companies are developing eco-friendly plastic materials to prevent oceanic pollution and slash CO2 emissions.

Mirareed's bioplastic, released in December 2017, has received many inquiries with the rising interest in environmental preservation. It is planning to expand its production facility.

While Mirareed is looking to raise its annual bioplastic sales to 1 billion yen ($9.04 million) by 2020, the Environment Ministry intends to increase domestic bioplastic shipping from 80,000 tons in fiscal 2014 to 1.97 million tons by fiscal 2030, giving the company a burst of momentum, according to Mirareed officials.

Local wood producers who provide ingredients for bioplastic also welcome the company’s effort.

Mirareed will adopt the Mosochiku bamboo produced in Kuwana, Mie Prefecture, as an ingredient for bioplastic on a full-scale basis. Under the plan, it will purchase powdered bamboo from a nonprofit group there called Sochikukai, which manages long-unattended bamboo thickets.

Sochikukai, which fell 6,000 bamboos annually, has been creating bamboo charcoal to sell for use to improve the soil.

Shigenobu Sakai, 68, vice chairman of Sochikukai, said Mirareed’s adoption of bamboo as an ingredient for bioplastic will offer a new option for the group.

“Many people are troubled by the issue of how to deal with felled bamboo,” he said. “I am happy if the bamboos are effectively used.”

DISSOLVABLE PLASTIC

Leading chemical maker Kaneka Corp. said on Aug. 7 that it will raise its production capacity fivefold of plant-derived plastic that can be dissolved with the help of microorganisms.

Kaneka expects demand for eco-friendly plastics will grow rapidly because the plastic waste-relating problem attracts increasing attention, such as the U.S.-based Starbucks coffee shop chain’s decision to stop using plastic straws at its outlets.

Made from plant oil and fat as well as other ingredients, the company’s PHBH plastic is a kind of biodegradable plastic, which can be broken down by microorganisms in seawater or soil.

More than 90 percent of PHBH is converted into water and CO2 within six months in seawater at 30 degrees.

Kaneka exports PHBH mainly to Europe so it will be used to make bags used when manure is generated from food scraps. With demand growing, Kaneka decided to increase its PHBH production.

At a cost of 2.5 billion yen, Kaneka’s plant in Takasago, Hyogo Prefecture, will be improved so its annual production capacity will be raised to 5,000 tons in December next year.

Anticipating that PHBH will be used for straws and tableware, Kaneka is looking to increase its annual output to 20,000 tons in the future.

(This article was written by Rui Hosomi, Hikaru Nakamura and Hiroki Ito.)