President, Institute of Promotion for Sustainable Society;
Honorary Adviser, National Institute of Technology and Evaluation (NITE);
Emeritus Professor, The University of Tokyo
Managing Executive Officer,
Chief Operating Officer,
Advanced Polymers Business Domain,
Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation
Executive Vice President,
General Manager, Technical,
Coca-Cola (Japan) Company, Ltd.
President & Representative Director,
Veolia Japan K. K. / Veolia Jenets K.K.
Director, Research Laboratory for IDEA,
Research Institute of Science for Safety and Sustainability,
National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST)
APAC General Manager, TerraCycle
Executive Officer, Senior Vice President,
At the Session “Balance between the Benefits of Plastics and Marine/Land Ecosystem Protection” at ICEF 2019; the functional, economical, health and hygiene values of plastics were presented. Plastics is used as material in such cases as food packaging and in apparel. Then plastics reduce the weight of many products. Furthermore, biodegradable polymers made from renewable raw materials are being developed. In packaging application, it improves hygiene and contributes to reducing food waste and food loss. In the transportation and logistics of products, lightweight solutions are provided when plastic is substituted for metal, which in turn enables the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. In textiles, plastics provide the ability to deliver a healthy and hygienic lifestyle as well as fashionablility.
There are significant advantages in using polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as the primary packaging for beverages. Plastic bottles made of PET (PET bottles) are easy to carry due to their light weight, re-sealability, durability and safety, therefore they meet the strictest food safety and sanitation standards for a wide range of beverages. Recycled PET bottles and the significant efforts behind the implementation of plant based PET, are seen as key resources that can be used to reduce the environmental load.
Moreover, to examine plastic packaging from the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) perspective, the following experiments using tofu and strawberries were presented.
In the first study, the quality maintenance effect results when comparing no packaging and original packaging were significant. With no packaging the tofu became inedible after 1 week, on the other hand with the original packaging the tofu was still good after 3 weeks.
The next study looked at the quality maintenance effect when using plastic packaging during transportation of strawberries, as well as the impact of associated GHG emissions. When strawberries were damaged during transportation, they became no longer viable as products. This not only caused the need for more strawberries to be produced and transported, but also impacted GHG emissions. The study shows that in cases where the distribution of strawberries was 2,000 kilometers, there was a clear increase in GHG emission levels when plastic packaging was not used.
With these results, the importance of the LCA methodology is shown when considering the tradeoffs when applying countermeasures. This is because the LCA methodology evaluates the enhanced life cycle of the product by taking into account mining, transportation, production, assembly, use, disposal and recycling, all the while considering the associated environmental problems.
In addition to the LCA methodology, some initiatives for the 3R’s (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle) plus Replacement of plastics were also explained. The need for cooperation among various stakeholders, including the government, was emphasized in order to create a circular economy in which increased efficiency in collection, separation and recycling of plastics can be achieved:
Finally, key takeaways from the discussion include: 1) Solutions can vary depending on the products; for example, biodegradable plastics are effective for products which are difficult to collect like fishing equipment; and 2) To realize a circular economy, merchandise should be attractive to consumers in order to encourage use.
As we recognize the adverse effects of plastics on the ecosystem, especially marine ecosystems, it has become necessary to evaluate the overall scheme in which plastics is relied upon in packaging and logistics. While it is true that plastics have outstanding functionality and is difficult to be replaced by other materials, in order to find the optimal solution to this problem, it is essential to construct a new model that reflects and fully considers other values. Though it is not easy to properly incorporate all the factors that impact the ecosystem into a new model, I believe there is no better method than LCA. Introducing new LCA parameters reflecting the adverse effects on ecosystems, we must start discussing a new framework that fully deal with the irreversible effects of plastics on the ecosystem.