BreakThrough Interview

New material manufactured using paper powder with a unique kneading technique. Usage of plastics, and greenhouse gas emissions are both reducedEco Research Institute Ltd.

2018.12.27

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Left: 30-micron paper powder used as raw material for MAPKA
Right: MAPKA pellets (Granular). Manufactured by blending paper powder and synthetic resin

summary

  • Establish a unique technology by not giving up development
  • Expand the business by understanding the global trends

The law passed by the European Commission to ban single-use plastics considering marine pollution caused by such plastics as a problem is still fresh in one's mind. “Reducing the amount of plastic used” is an important theme to be addressed by mankind.
Established in 1998, Eco Research Institute Ltd. has attracted attention from Japan and overseas as a company that manufactures products with less impact on the global environment, including cushioning and heat insulating materials. They succeeded in developing a product that can significantly reduce the amount of plastic used by mixing paper powder, manufactured using their unique technology, with synthetic resin (plastic).
This molding material can reduce not only the amount of plastic used but also greenhouse gas emissions, and is being used for food containers, stationery, home appliance parts, and daily necessities. Now that single-use plastics are considered to be a problem, President Matsushita of Eco Research Institute Ltd. was requested to provide information on product development and future plans.

Strengths and Features of the New Material MAPKA

MAPKA is in the form of pellets that is manufactured by thermally melting synthetic resin (polyolefin resin) into paper powder, which is the main raw material. Waste paper is used as the raw material for manufacturing the paper powder, and for material designation, it can be considered to be a paper product.
Though the main raw material is paper, MAPKA has excellent characteristics such as low shrinkage, high rigidity, and heat resistance. Since MAPKA can be used for injection molding and sheet molding with conventional molding machines that are designed for plastic raw materials, it does not require new capital investment and is truly a new material for replacing plastic.
The material can be scrapped as “Burnable waste” or “Burnt waste” as it is paper, harmful gases such as dioxins are not released during incineration, and CO2 emissions are reduced by approximately 35% compared with general purpose plastics (polypropylene). The energy required for combustion is lower than that of general-purpose synthetic resins, and the combustion furnace does not become hot.
Many companies are inquiring from the aspects of global warming prevention and effective use of resources, and plans to develop new products using MAPKA are progressing one after another.

Developing unique products from circumstances that are beyond expectation

Though the company has factories in the United States and Korea and its sales continue to grow steadily, President Matsushita said that the company faced a series of problems before they could develop the product.
President Matsushita worked at a non-life insurance company before becoming an independent consultant, he had invested and supported a company engaged in the development of new materials by mixing plastic and waste “Okara”, generated when tofu is prepared. However, the manager disappeared, and the company faced a management crisis. President Matsushita considered that this incident should not “Affect the stakeholders” and took over the business. However, “Okara” could not be used, and they tried various materials, such as coffee sediment, strained lees of tea, and tea left-overs for a 1 year. They said that nothing worked.

At this time, an acquaintance from the waste disposal industry said, “How about this material?” and suggested paper waste that is discarded by bookbinding factories, and when they tried the paper waste, it opened a new door for them.
They started with trial manufacture of small quantities. The paper waste that they tried were pieces of cotton-like paper that is cut-off during bookbinding. The paper waste had to be loosened to prevent clogging of the machines, and mixing with plastic to a level sufficient for mass production was not possible. This is when they came up with the idea of converting the paper into a fine powder. They could not find a “Machine that could convert paper to powder” even after searching all over Japan. They decided that their only option was to, “Develop a machine in-house that could convert paper waste to powder”, and they developed a machine based on the stone mill after trying many times. They succeeded in manufacturing paper powder of size ranging from 25 to 50 microns.
This patented technology for paper powder was awarded the chemistry technology prize by the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Award in 2017.

Significant development with the trends of the world as a tailwind

When the company first started manufacturing foam by mixing paper powder and plastic for cushioning material, there was a ban on packaging materials using Styrofoam in Europe. Companies using Styrofoam as cushioning material for exporting their products were forced to search for alternative materials. At this time, a domestic automotive parts manufacturer sent an inquiry to the company for cushioning materials. Soon a franchise factory was set up, and business with other automotive related companies started which led to the current business growth of the company.

They then started research to evolve the cushioning material made from paper powder and synthetic resin and develop a substitute for plastic that could be used to manufacture products of various shapes, and the result was “MAPKA”.
Unlike the foaming process used for manufacturing products with cushioning materials, this required paper powder and synthetic resin with different specific gravities to be mixed uniformly for making the molding material. The specific gravity of paper powder is 1/9 of synthetic resin. Paper floats when conventional mixing methods are used. The raw materials are mixed uniformly using a unique technology developed by the company. “MAPKA” is pelletized unlike cushioning material, and it can be molded into various shapes.

Food containers manufactured using MAPKA

The company has also commercialized the insulation material “earth republic” using pellets manufactured by mixing paper powder and starch, which was developed before MAPKA. Since adhesives and foaming agents are not used in the insulation material, it does not contain chemicals harmful to the human body. It is used as a safe material by companies constructing houses, and “earth republic” has increased its market share as a thermal insulation material.

Cold box manufactured using thermal insulation material “earth republic”

Contribute and develop as a company manufacturing in Japan

The company has 3 unique technologies that have given it worldwide recognition.
1. Dry-type continuous paper powdering technology
2. Homogeneous blending technology for paper powder and synthetic resin
3. Steam foaming technology for paper powder, starch, and synthetic resin

In addition, this company has received various awards including Small and Medium Enterprise Excellent New Technology/New Product Award (The Resona Foundation for Small and Medium Enterprise Promotion), Tokyo Venture Technology Awards/Excellence Award (Bureau of Industrial and Labor Affairs), and Monodzukuri Nippon Grand Award/Excellence Award (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry) in Japan, as well the international GPEC Environmental Stewardship Award.

President Matsushita said that the future goals for the company are, “To be listed in the stock exchange of America as a Japanese Company” and “Mass production of MAPKA using biodegradable plastics (Plastics that are decomposed by microorganisms into low molecular weight compounds that do not adversely affect the natural world)”.
To realize biodegradable MAPKA, the company is considering using biodegradable plastic instead of synthetic resin as the raw material, but a mass production system for biodegradable resin is not available in Japan. Biodegradable plastic that can be purchased for 1 dollar in America is 4 times more expensive in Japan. An expensive product, even if it is good, will not be accepted in the market. The company considers that the problem of cost can be solved by manufacturing at their facility in America.
The company said that one of the challenges for biodegradability is faster decomposition and tests indicate mixing paper powder speeds up the decomposition process. They are determined to contribute to solving environmental issues.

President Matsushita has taken the opportunity of having developed a unique product based on the awareness of reducing environmental impact and winning awards to run the business smoothly. The company in addition to developing new products plans to focus on providing consultancy services concerning environmental management to venture companies utilizing the business skills they have gained.

Interview Date: November 15, 2018


Eco Research Institute Ltd.

The company is engaged in manufacturing and selling molding material containing paper powder manufactured using their unique technology by mixing paper powder with synthetic resin (plastic), which significantly reduces the amount of plastic used. The company supplies products with low environmental impact including cushioning and insulation materials in Japan and overseas.

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