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News Navigator: Does environment-friendly plastic exist?

The process of a biodegradable plastic bottle breaking down in compost: from left, before the degradation process begins, two weeks later, four weeks later and six weeks later. (Photo courtesy of the Japan BioPlastics Association)

Single-use plastic, especially the use of straws, has been widely covered in the news in relation to the growing amount of plastic waste in the environment. The Mainichi Shimbun answers common questions readers may have about plastic, specifically environment-friendly biodegradable plastic.

Question: Is it true there is a plastic that naturally degrades in the soil and other environments?

Answer: Yes, it is referred to as biodegradable plastic. Biodegradable refers to the breaking down of plastic into substances like water and carbon dioxide due to the work of microorganisms and enzymes that are found in nature. If corn, crab shells or other plant- or animal-based materials, or biomass, are used to produce plastics, then they degrade in the soil or other natural environments even if they are discarded after use.

Q: What is the problem with regular plastics?

A: While regular plastics made from fossil fuels are sturdy and hold up against corrosion from things like acids, if they are simply thrown out into the environment, they do not easily degrade. Discarded plastic waste crumbles due to ultraviolent light from the sun, washes into the ocean and runs the risk of causing negative effects on sea life. Because of this, movements have begun in Europe and the United States to ban single-use plastic items like straws. In Japan, plastic waste is burned to produce electricity and other things in a process dubbed thermal recycling. However, this method comes with the same setbacks as burning the fossil fuels used to make those plastics -- releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that cause global warming into the atmosphere.

Q: Why don't we just all switch to using biodegradable plastic?

A: Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Research and development of biodegradable materials has been going on since the 1980s, and there are some products that have been put to practical use, such as containers. Still, they cost more than regular plastic to produce and have not been able to make much headway in the market. That's why the Ministry of the Environment has decided to begin a project next fiscal year granting research and development funds to companies aiming to mass-produce biodegradables. The idea of actively switching out difficult-to-recycle items, such as the plastic bags for food waste, with biodegradable alternatives is being considered. At the same time, it is also important to proceed with efforts to not produce plastic waste in the first place. (Answers by Kazuhiro Igarashi, Science & Environment News Department)

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