A Sea of Change: Japanese Team Develops Industrial-Grade Biodegradable Plastic

It’s alarming to realize that our beautiful oceans are increasingly becoming dumping grounds for plastics. In 2022 alone, an overwhelming 30 million tons of plastic ended up in our seas, wreaking havoc on marine life and their habitats.

However, amidst these troubling times, there’s a glimmer of hope coming from Japan. Researchers at Kobe University, along with their colleagues from several other institutions, have developed an innovative biodegradable plastic that could potentially change how we view sustainability in materials.

For years, the durability of traditional plastics, which are primarily made from fossil fuels, has been a double-edged sword. Yes, they’re strong, but they also linger in our environment for centuries. This enduring presence has led to mountains of waste in both landfills and oceans.

The new biodegradable plastics, like the one developed by the Japanese team, promise a different future. These materials are designed to break down within months or years under the right conditions, significantly lessening their environmental footprint.

Polylactic Acid
Polylactic Acid (PLA) Pellets

The core of this breakthrough is a bioplastic dubbed LAHB (pronounced “lab”), which boasts exceptional durability and rapid biodegradation rates in seawater. “LAHB can be molded into various industrial products thanks to its robustness,” Professor Seiichi Taguchi, a pivotal figure in this research, shared in a recent interview. He added, “This innovation is poised to play a crucial role in combating global warming and elevating our biomanufacturing capabilities to new heights.”

Interestingly, LAHB has a naturally cloudy white appearance, which might not appeal to all uses. The researchers tackled this by blending a bit of LAHB with polylactic acid (PLA), a clear, biodegradable plastic already popular on the market. This small tweak not only maintained the strength and biodegradability of LAHB but also improved its aesthetics, making it suitable for a broader range of applications.

Professor Taguchi is particularly excited about the environmental implications of LAHB. “With its ability to degrade quickly in seawater, LAHB could dramatically reduce the lifespan of plastics in marine environments,” he noted. Imagine a world where plastic waste doesn’t persist for centuries in the ocean but instead breaks down harmlessly in a short period.

biodegradable plastic
Next-generation Polylactic Acid (Photo courtesy of Koh Sangho, assistant professor at Kobe University’s Graduate School of Science, Technology and Innovation)

This development also supports Japan’s ambitious sustainability targets. The government aims to ramp up the country’s bioplastics usage to about 2 million tons by 2030, and LAHB’s characteristics align perfectly with this goal.

Despite these advancements, the journey isn’t without its hurdles. Biodegradable plastics require specific conditions to decompose effectively, conditions that aren’t always available everywhere. Additionally, ensuring that these plastics—and the additives they might contain—are fully biodegradable is a continuing challenge for scientists.

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Nevertheless, the progress made by Professor Taguchi and his team is a beacon of hope. LAHB has the potential to revolutionize industries and lead us towards a more sustainable future,” he concluded with optimism.

With ongoing research and development, materials like LAHB are set to play a crucial role in mitigating plastic pollution and helping us achieve a cleaner, more sustainable planet.