OSAKA/TOKYO -- Chemical makers are hastening to produce more environmentally friendly plastics, expecting a surge in demand as big companies like international coffee chain Starbucks phase out ocean-polluting materials like straws.
Japan's Kaneka said Tuesday it would quintuple the output capacity of a polymer that biodegrades by 90% or more within two years in the earth or six months in water. Peers like Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings and Toyobo, as well as international competitors like Germany's BASF, are likewise adding capacity or starting up production of materials that have previously seen limited use due to cost concerns.
Plastics commonly used in straws and grocery bags, for example, do not disintegrate naturally in the environment. Their role in ocean pollution has drawn global alarm, not least due to an affecting 2015 viral video of a sea turtle having a straw extracted from its nose. Restaurants, retailers and even cosmetics companies are changing their practices and accelerating the search for alternatives.
Kaneka, citing an expected rise in demand due to strengthening environmental regulations abroad, plans to invest about 2.5 billion yen ($22.5 million) to lift annual production capacity to about 5,000 tons at a Hyogo Prefecture plant, with output scheduled to start in December 2019. The company is developing a range of uses for the polymer, like straws, forks and materials used in harbors. It is considering further expanding output capacity to about 20,000 tons per year.
Mitsubishi Chemical already produces 20,000 tons per year of biodegradable plastic in Thailand, and plans to start churning out a newly developed material this fiscal year. U.S. chemical giant DuPont, the specialty materials unit of merged company DowDuPont, has contracted Toyobo to make biodegradable plastics, with production to start in September at a Yamaguchi Prefecture plant. BASF, the market leader, aims to offer an array of naturally disintegrating materials for products including plastic coffee capsules used with some coffee machines.
Tiny plastic particles also pose a threat to ocean ecosystems, potentially killing fish that swallow them. The plastic bits can easily pick up harmful substances, raising the possibility that the damage could spread to people who eat fish that have ingested them, for example.
Starbucks has said it will gradually eliminate disposable plastic straws from all its stores by 2020. Fast food chain McDonald's will start using paper straws instead of plastic ones in the U.K. and Ireland from September.
A number of Western retailers are moving toward banning plastic shopping bags. Japanese cosmetics makers Kao and Kose are switching to naturally derived ingredients for scrubs mixed into toothpastes and other hygiene products in an effort to keep microplastics out of the oceans.
Last year, the combined global output of biodegradable plastics came to less than 1% of all plastic at 880,000 tons. Production has been forecast to rise 23% from that level to 1.08 million tons by 2022, but demand could grow further if the movement to ditch plastic picks up speed.
Environmental advantages aside, biodegradable plastics also offer materials makers a niche of relatively secure profit. The high-value-added products require cutting-edge technology and are difficult to make for less specialized producers in China and other markets.
Just as tightening environmental regulations in China and Europe have driven automakers to focus competition on electric rather than gas-powered cars in those markets, materials makers may find the battleground shifting toward environmentally friendly substances.