BreakThrough Study Idea

It’s important to clarify required output when developing new plasticsHiroshi Uyama

<Series 2 / complete>


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In Part 1, Professor Uyama, a pioneer in researching non-petroleum plastics, discussed the definition and properties of plastic in addition to the relationship between Japanese companies and plastic. Bioplastics are in the spotlight right now as potential alternative materials as the world is waking up to problems caused by plastic. So, what exactly is bioplastic?
Part 2: The future of plastics & new possibilities.

What Exactly Are Bioplastics?

Conventional petroleum-based plastics have been identified as problematic, so many people are excited about bioplastics right now. There are 2 categories of bioplastic. One type is biodegradable, meaning that it can be decomposed by microorganisms. Biodegradable plastic is any plastic that can be broken down by naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil, so plastic trash will eventually degrade into carbon dioxide and water.
The other type is biomass plastic. Biomass refers to renewable organic resources derived from living things. Polylactide is the best-known biomass plastic, it’s made out of starch derived from plants like corn. If we can use plants like corn, then we will never have to worry about a scarcity of resources, unlike petroleum. Also, plant-based resources are in the spotlight because they can be carbon neutral, meaning that they won’t lead to an increase in carbon emissions. The research and development of bioplastics is one of the primary topics in my lab.

※ Concept & Role of Bioplastics. Bioplastics refers to 2 categories: biodegradable plastics and biomass plastics
Source: Japan BioPlastics Association, “Overview of Bioplastics”
※ Carbon neutral refers to an equal amount of carbon emission and carbon capture in industry and activities

Biomass plastics are said to be full of new potential because they are unaffected by petroleum shortages in addition to being carbon neutral. What is the current state of new plastic materials, including biomass plastics, in the business world?

Japanese Companies & Biomass Plastic

There are already a few major companies working on the production and development of biomass plastics in Japan. But I think that even major companies who want to build their business on new plastic materials will still have difficulty in regards to capital investment because a significant production volume is required.
One example of bioplastic in our everyday lives is a major beverage company using plastic drink bottle labels made from polylactide, a biomass plastic. Polylactides are also used for egg cartons that are distributed by a major grocery chain.
Other possible applications include car seats and computer cases. I think that if we can clarify what sort of things we ought to be using new materials like bioplastic for, then we can increase opportunities for utilization. When it comes to expanding the scope of products, I think that small and medium businesses with excellent molding technology can address the task more easily.

※ Japan Bioplastic Shipping Output (Estimate) (2017)
Source: Japan BioPlastics Association, “Overview of Bioplastics”

Just making alternative materials is not enough, we must clarify and define what items need to be made, and we must demand bioplastic to be used. Right now we have the seeds of new materials that can be used for products, but bioplastics will not become widespread until the world identifies an ideal purpose for them.

The Possibilities of New Plastics

I would say that it will still take time until plastic is replaced by bioplastic. Japanese products in particular have very high expectations for performance. It’s also very hard for SME to raise their prices. Compared to conventional plastic, bioplastic absolutely has better performance, and if we can lower the cost then I think it will become popular. Of course, there are also concerns about the environment, but right now it looks like it will not be adopted easily.But, there are some fields that give hope for growth. For example, the containers of cosmetics and nutritional supplements... products like these depend on a consumer image strategy, so using bioplastics to appeal to environmental causes would improve their branding. I think that if fields like these will adopt bioplastics, then it will lead to chances for greater overall growth.

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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