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Environment

Biodegradable straw material to debut in Asia

Mitsubishi Chemical and Thai PTT develop alternative that dissolves in air and water

A Starbucks customer places a straw in his iced coffee in the U.S. city of Philadelphia. Straws have become a symbol of the global movement to reduce plastic waste.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings and Thai state oil group PTT have combined two types of biodegradable plastic into a new, stronger material they say will reduce a source of waste filling the world's oceans -- drinking straws.

Straws have become a symbol of the movement away from single-use plastics. Big multinational restaurant chains like Starbucks and McDonald's are phasing them out, creating a need for environmentally sound alternatives.

The new material from Mitsubishi Chemical and PTT is made from two plastics that dissolve when exposed to air and water. Combining the two makes a material that is stronger than either plastic, according to the partners. Straw makers will be able to use the same molding equipment as they do to manufacture conventional straws.

The new material -- a combination of Mitsubishi Chemical's polybutylene succinate and PTT's polylactic acid -- costs more than conventional plastic. But because straws make up a tiny fraction of the price of a drink, any impact on consumer spending is expected to be small.

Another alternative to plastic is paper. But paper's smell can ruin the taste of beverages, and it is not as sturdy as plastic. The new biodegradable plastic solves both of these problems.

Other Japanese chemical groups are scaling up production of products that can reduce plastic waste. Kaneka will quintuple production capacity of biodegradable plastics. Kuraray plans to build a U.S. plant for biodegradable films for packaging raw meat and fresh seafood.

The global movement away from plastics is propelling development of new materials, especially as more investors consider a company's environmental, social and governance policies when deciding whether to invest.

European countries have taken the lead in regulating the use of single-use plastics. France, for instance, will ban disposable plastic tableware in 2020. The U.K. will outlaw the sale of straws, stirrers and cotton swabs made with plastics.

Japan has been slow to embrace similar regulation, although the Environment Ministry will seek 5 billion yen ($45 million) in funding for a subsidy for producing alternatives to single-use plastics. Japan and the U.S. are the only members of the Group of Seven not to sign last year's Ocean Plastics Charter, a nonbinding agreement that sets targets for recycling and recovering plastic waste.

A Japanese government committee charged with mapping out a strategy for reducing plastic waste held its first meeting on Aug. 17.

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