Business & Policy
US Corn-Based Plastics Gain Popularity in Japan
By United States Grains Council
Researchers and processors are exploring more industrial applications using farm-based commodities, and it appears that work is beginning to pay-off, with Japanese investors increasing imports of corn-based plastics in 2008.
October 31, 2008
With the worldwide increase in popularity of ‘going-green,’ US polylactic acid (PLA), the biodegradable plastic-like material made from corn, has certainly made waves in overseas industries. “Products made from PLA are gaining popularity among consumers with its environmentally friendly characteristics in two dimensions: One is its biodegradability and the other is its sustainability,” said Hiroko Sakashita, US Grains Council associate director in Japan. “Currently those products are drawing the attention of environment conscious companies including ones making efforts to show reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.” According to Japan customs’ trade statistics released by the Ministry of Finance, Japan, the second largest importer of US PLA, imported close to 5,800 metric tons in the 2007 calendar year, 99 percent of which came from the United States. So far in 2008, Japan has already imported nearly 5,000 tons from the United States and is expected to purchase more. USGC has promoted the use of PLA in Japan through educational videos and marketing efforts including taking a group of fashion designers to the Value Enhanced Grains International Conference in Orlando, Fla., in 1999 to demonstrate PLA textiles in the apparel market. Many Japanese companies have invested in the environment-friendly material because it can be processed like any other thermoplastic material, but is a more sustainable option. PLA has been adapted into Japanese production for uses such as automobile manufacturing, utilizing the fabric material to make the seats currently used by Mazda; building materials; household electric appliances and furnishings; food packaging; disposable packages and many more durable goods. PLA development has also succeeded in improving soft and clear films with enhanced heat resistance, making food packaging and disposable packaging more accommodating.
NatureWorks LLC, a joint venture company owned by Cargill and Teijin Limited, reportedly has plans to double its current production capacity for PLA with mentions of plans to expand facilities to the Asian region. “This news interests Japanese manufacturers very much,” Sakashita said. “Japan’s industry is expecting that PLA supply cost might be lowered by the potential expansion in PLA production.”