BreakThrough Study Idea

Plastics Created the Modern Chemical IndustryHiroshi Uyama

<Series 1 / complete>


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Plastics are a hot topic right now in every country around the world. By now everyone has heard about major coffee chains and fast food franchises declaring bans on plastic straws. Movements like this are growing, and the influence is gradually creeping into the Japanese economy and manufacturing industries.
This professional interview features our discussion with Hiroshi Uyama, a pioneer in researching non-petroleum plastics, and professor at the Division of Applied Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University.
We talked with him about the potential of bioplastics made from corn and other materials, movements to replace conventional plastic, academia-industrial partnerships with SME Japan and what to expect in the future of manufacturing. All 4 parts of this interview are covered here.

Part 1: Why is plastic a worldwide issue right now?
Professor Uyama began by explaining the definition of plastic, and describing the current environment of the plastic industry. Plastics have become an indispensable part of every day life in our modern lifestyles. However, most of us have never thought deeply about the unique properties of plastic. Actually, the history of plastic is quite short - it didn’t become widespread in Japan until after the post-war economic boom.

Definition & Properties of Plastic

From an academic perspective, the existence of macromolecule compounds (polymers) was proved in the 1930s. Until then, science was only sure about ordinary molecules with low molecular weights. Kids today may not believe it, but when I was young, all buckets were made of tin. Now buckets and other toys are almost always plastic, it invaded our lifestyles at a fantastic speed after the post-war economic boom. It wouldn’t be too extreme to say that plastics created the modern chemical industry over the past 80-something years.
The best thing about plastics is that they are so light. This folder I’m holding right now is plastic, it barely weighs anything. If this was steel... it would be ridiculously heavy! (laughs) Plastic has taken over the world because it’s light and easy to shape. Its high versatility makes it easy to adapt for nearly any product or purpose. Compared to metals, it melts more easily, and another advantage is that it requires less energy for production.

There are also so many types of plastic that use different ingredients. If you want to count, there are over 100 varieties, but 70% of the plastics we use are usually from 5 versatile categories: low density polyethylene (LDPE), high density polyethylene (HDPE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene, and polyvinyl chloride.
In particular, the comparatively low weights of polyethylene and polypropylene allows them to float in ocean water, so that’s the plastic trash that you will see floating in the sea and carried away to distant oceans. This is called marine debris, and it is one of the main reasons why everyone is angry about plastic right now.

Plastic became a widespread element in our lifestyles because it’s light, versatile and comes in many varieties - but now it’s viewed as a problem. What changed, and how should we approach plastics next?

The Problem With Plastics

Conventional plastic is a petroleum product, so there is a tendency to discuss plastics in connection with oil supply shortages .I can understand that perspective, because the world will change drastically if industry is denied access to raw oil. But I don’t think we need to give up on everything humans have created so easily. However, the reality is that petroleum is extremely valuable in chemistry and science because it’s a carbon-based resource, so we need to find different raw chemical resource to replace petroleum in the near future.
There are so many petroleum-based products, but the one that’s getting the most attention right now is the overwhelming availability of plastic bags and drink bottles. We can avoid using these items with a little bit of personal effort, and they directly affect our daily lifestyles, so they probably have a strong tendency to be viewed as a problem. I think it’s important to promote awareness about saving our immediate surroundings, starting with items like plastic bags and drink bottles.
The other big problem is marine debris, like I mentioned before. Plastic drifting in the ocean gets broken up by sunlight and waves into tiny particles called microplastics. Fish and other sealife ingest these tiny pieces, and we can detect microplastics inside their organs. If the microplastics are removed from their body as excrement, then humans would have no issue eating these fish, but these particles remain in the parts that we eat, so I think we have some cause for concern.

The world is beginning to view plastic as the enemy, so how are companies that use plastic for much of their manufacturing regarding this issue?

Japanese Companies & Plastic

I think that manufacturing industries in Japan will never be able to avoid plastic. For example, Japanese cars are 1/4 plastic parts, and it is also ubiquitous in electronics and medical equipment. The truth is that Japanese manufacturing grew in parallel with the continual evolution of plastic molding technology.
The defining characteristic of Japanese companies, especially in manufacturing, is said to be that overspeccing is standard. They will never lower their spec standards. Home electronics are a good example of this, there are few examples of minimalization. As a whole, the citizens of Japan are quite picky about product quality.
When considering a new material to replace plastic, the national character of Japan will influence the selection. For example, bioplastics are emerging as an alternative to conventional plastic, but the physical properties still have plenty of room for development, and frankly, the costs are expensive. It’s doubtful whether consumers will accept bioplastics, even with lower standards.
In these circumstances, Japanese companies considering the introduction of alternative materials like bioplastics are also influenced by their company philosophy and business management policies. I’d like to continue talking about bioplastics in Part 2.

Interview Date: November 5, 2018



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Hiroshi Uyama

Born 1962 in Kobe. Graduated from the Kyoto University Faculty of Engineering & Graduate School of Engineering. Worked as a researcher at Kao Corporation before joining the Tohoku University School of Engineering as a research assistant in 1988. Rejoined the Kyoto University Graduate School of Engineering as a research assistant in 1997, and became an assistant professor in 2000. Currently a professor at the Division of Applied Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering, Osaka University since 2004. Involved in collaborative research and development with companies through SME Japan as a specialist in polymer materials chemistry.

Awards & Honors
・Polymer Journal, Paper Award (1995)
「Dispersion Polymerization of N-Vinylformamide in Polar Media. Preparation of Monodisperse Hydrophilic Polymer Particles」
・Chemical Society of Japan, Progress Award (1997)
“Pioneering Polymerization Using Enzymatic Catalysts.”
・Japan Society for Bioscience, Biotechnology and Agrochemistry, Agrochemical Planning Award (2005)
“Development of New Green Polymers Based on Renewable Plant Resources”
・8th Bio Business Competition Japan, Grand Prize (2008)
“Development of New Polylactide Materials from Low-Cost Biomass Resources.”
・The Society of Polymer Science, Japan, 2017 Mitsubishi Chemical Award (2017)
“Development of High-Performance Polymer Materials from Plant Oils.”

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