KUALA LUMPUR -- With food and beverage companies increasingly moving to curb their use of plastic and investors becoming more environmentally conscious, the world's chemical industry is under pressure to tackle marine plastic pollution.
Asia is the focal point, since China and Southeast Asia have led the growth of the global chemical market. At the same time, the rising volume of plastic waste in oceans, lakes and rivers has become a matter of widespread concern in Europe and elsewhere.
So the burning question for the industry is how to make growth compatible with conservation. Despite some pushback, innovative new materials offer hope.
The issue took center stage at this year's Asia Petrochemical Industry Conference in the Malaysian capital earlier this week, though the event failed to produce specific measures to address the problem.
Encik Akbar Md Thayoob, president of the Malaysian Petrochemicals Association, claimed that the chemical industry was being misunderstood and that, for his daughter's generation, it had become something of a taboo subject.
Back in June, leaders from five of the Group of Seven major industrialized countries put their names to the Ocean Plastics Charter at a summit in Canada. The charter contains specific numerical targets to combat marine plastic pollution. Japan and the U.S. were the only two countries not to sign it.
Some chemical industry insiders argue that setting strict targets is premature. Some also say scientific evidence of the risks to human health is inconclusive.
Still, a number of Japanese companies are keen to lead efforts to address the issue.
"Japan should play a leadership role in Asia," said Kohei Morikawa, chairman of the Japan Petrochemical Industry Association and president of chemicals manufacturer Showa Denko, who attended the conference in Kuala Lumpur. He also warned of the risks that the issue poses to growth in the global chemical market.
Japanese companies have a competitive advantage in recycling technology, with the effective utilization ratio of waste plastic in the country exceeding 80%.
Hitoshi Ochi, vice chairman of the JPCA and president of Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings, said his company intended to provide technological support to the region's chemical industry. "[Other] Asian countries have a strong interest in Japan's [waste plastic] collection system," he said.
Investors globally are attaching increasing importance to companies' environment, governance and society records.
Japanese food service company Skylark Holdings has followed in the footsteps of McDonald's and Starbucks by deciding to stop providing plastic straws, as their use affects both stock prices and sales.
Coca-Cola and Walmart have declared that by 2025, all the plastic packaging they use will be reusable or biodegradable.
"'Monomaterial' is the next key concept," said an official in charge of the packaging material business for overseas markets at Japan's Toppan Printing.
Many types of packaging for food and cosmetics incorporate numerous layers of plastics or metals with different properties. The process of separating the various films from each other makes these products difficult to recycle.
The Toppan official said that there has been growing demand from U.S. and European manufacturers for recyclable, single-material packaging.
Biodegradable plastic is also becoming increasingly popular.
Japanese manufacturer Kaneka, Mitsubishi Chemical and a number of European companies such as Germany's BASF are all aiming to increase sales of biodegradable plastic in an effort to seek out new business opportunities.
"This time, it's real," said Yoshihiro Fujimori, head of Mitsubishi Chemical's sustainable resources business.