In August 1992, Professor Robert Lenz (Polymer Science and Engineering, University of Massachusetts, Amherst) and Dr. Graham Swift (Rohm & Haas Co.) met with Paul Herer of the National Science Foundation (NSF) to discuss possible NSF sponsorship of a fact-finding tour to assess the status of research and development and applications of biodegradable polymers and plastics in Japan. The proposed visit would also determine the status of and prospects for commercial development of biodegradable polymeric materials in Japan, and explore the potential impact of this field on the global economy.

In November 1993, six U.S. scientists and engineers visited Japan. The team represented active university, industry, and government research programs, and a wide range of interests in the field of biodegradable polymers and plastics. The trip, which was subsidized by grants from the National Science Foundation and twelve companies, enabled the team members to visit or meet with representatives of 31 universities, government ministries, institutes, companies, and associations in Japan over a three-week period. Participating organizations were selected based on their previous contacts with team members and the recommendations of the Biodegradable Plastics Society (BPS) of Japan. At the team's request, the BPS contacted and scheduled visits with interested Japanese organizations.

This report describes the organizations visited, and examines each organization's primary activities in the field of biodegradable polymers and plastics.


Japan's highly effective national program on biodegradable plastics is coordinated by the Biodegradable Plastics Society. Funded by more than 70 companies and 3 government ministries, the BPS supports research in universities and government institutes throughout Japan. In close collaboration with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), the BPS helps formulate the goals of the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth (RITE), which is the new Japanese national laboratory for the environment.

Japan's national program on biodegradable polymers began with BPS- and MITI-sponsored fact-finding teams. The teams traveled throughout the industrialized world to build a knowledge base. Japan used this base to rapidly establish many new approaches to the technology for synthesizing, testing, evaluating, and disposing of biodegradable polymers (many of which are produced from renewable resources). A principal goal of Japan's program is to develop biodegradable polymers which are competitive technically and economically with traditional, petroleum-based polymers. The country's progress, measured by numbers of patents and publications, leaves no doubt that Japan is now the world leader in this emerging technology.

Biodegradable plastics and polymers are certain to increase in importance as environmental contamination and waste disposal problems associated with plastics (and related products from synthetic polymers) become more severe. But the technological strides made by Japanese scientists are rapidly preempting U.S. scientists' ability to establish a proprietary position in the technology of biodegradable plastics and polymers. However, the problems of disposal and contamination shared by the United States and Japan provide a basis for cooperation.

To establish an effective, bilateral information exchange program with R&D groups in Japan, one objective of the team of U.S. experts was to initiate collaborations between industrial, university, and government laboratories in the two countries, as well as establishing relationships with important policy-setting organizations and ministries, especially BPS and MITI. The visit would focus on obtaining, organizing, and disseminating information on important aspects of biodegradable polymer technology, including: (1) types of polymers and polymeric systems under study; (2) processing and properties of biodegradable polymers; and (3) test procedures, applications, waste management of biodegradable products. It was also of interest to obtain information on the methods for establishing technology cooperation and information transfer between government, universities, and industry in Japan, and to compare their interactions with those of equivalent organizations in the United States. The survey would be conducted by a team of multidisciplinary U.S. researchers active in the field, including polymer chemists, polymer engineers, and biochemists from university, industry, and government laboratories.

Drs. Lenz and Swift submitted a formal proposal to NSF on September 1, 1993, and sent copies to fifteen companies to request supplemental support. NSF approved the proposal and provided funds for the trip as requested. Twelve companies responded with strong interest and supplemental financial support for the mission (see Acknowledgments).

All of the individuals named in the NSF proposal agreed to participate except Professor R. Clinton Fuller, who had to withdraw. Professor Fuller was replaced by Professor Steven Goodwin of the Department of Microbiology of the University of Massachusetts (see Members of the Visiting Team, Appendix A). On most days the team was divided into groups A and B. This way, two organizations could be visited in the morning and two in the afternoon of each day (see appendices A and B).

Before departing for Japan, the team asked each contributing U.S. company to provide a list of subjects of particular interest. Based on this and the areas of interest to individual team members, the team prepared questions to ask during the site visits. These questions were distributed in advance to all of the participating organizations (see Appendix C).

The tour was timed to coincide with the Third International Scientific Workshop on Biodegradable Plastics and Polymers, held at the Senri Life Science Center in Osaka from November 9-11, 1993. The team attended the workshop, which featured talks on biodegradable plastics and polymers, presented by industry, government, and university R&D personnel from around the world. Conference topics included biodegradation of polymers and plastics; environmental degradation of plastics; synthesis and properties of new biodegradable plastic materials; biodegradation and morphologies of polymer blends; development of biodegradation test methods; and governmental policy, regulations, and standards. The workshop included contributions on properties, applications, testing, and future directions of biodegradables.

Visitation reports were prepared by the team members. Each member was assigned a company or organization to report on. Each evening, the team members met. The member responsible for the site (or sites) visited that day gave an oral presentation of what he would include in his report. When the team returned to the United States, the members wrote their reports and submitted them to Professor Lenz for editing and compiling. The final draft of each report was sent to the Japanese host organization for review. Each organization responded with comments or changes.

A day-long workshop was presented at the NSF building in Arlington, Virginia on February 28, 1994. All of the sponsoring companies and several government agencies sent representatives. Each team member presented his report(s) with transparencies.


Japan's national program on biodegradable polymers and plastics, initiated by MITI in 1989, is thriving as it enters the last five of ten years originally allocated to assess opportunities for Japanese industry. The multifaceted program evaluates new technologies, testing methods, and potential markets for biodegradables. The program is coordinated by the Biodegradable Plastics Society, an open membership organization composed predominantly of industrial representatives. For the first time in Japan, MITI permitted foreign membership in this national program (others have subsequently been opened to foreigners). Several overseas companies, including Zeneca and Rohm & Haas, took advantage of the opportunity to join. Total membership currently stands at over seventy. The stated goals of the program are as follows:

To achieve these goals, the BPS works with other organizations, including academia and government laboratories in Japan, as well as organizations throughout the world.

The program is based on the respect that exists in Japan for the environment, as well as concern that every option be considered for improving the environment and preventing further decline. Biodegradables, only one option under consideration, will compete with recycling, incineration, pyrolysis, and burial. Biodegradables may never develop into a major commercial opportunity in Japan. But even if the Japanese focus on the incineration option for the disposal of waste plastics, the possibility of choosing other disposal methods will remain. Indeed, biodegradable polymers and plastics may provide greater opportunities in export markets than within Japan itself.

The approach taken in Japan is a national collaboration directed at understanding the opportunities and technologies that may be successful. Competition will come later, once Japan decides to move ahead with the technologies and the various markets. It is currently anticipated that biodegradables will satisfy only certain special market segments. Biodegradable plastics could satisfy such niche markets as fast-food wrappers, agricultural films, personal hygiene products, and marine and freshwater applications. Water-soluble polymers could achieve much broader acceptance as expectations rise that the biodegradability of these water-soluble polymers, which are disposed of into the environment, will be mandated in a few years.

The team saw no major new technology breakthroughs. As is the case for U.S. researchers, Japanese scientists and engineers are focusing on the use of natural renewable resources, synthetic polymers, and bacterially-produced polymers such as polyhydroxyalkanoates, poly(amino acids), and polysaccharides. The major polymers receiving attention are the Zeneca PHBV Biopol (R), poly(lactic acid) or PLA from several sources, polycaprolactone, and the new synthetic polyester Bionolle (R), from Showa High Polymer. Each of these has one or more major deficiencies that inhibit their acceptance for large-scale applications. These deficiencies include high price (with little expectation of a substantial decrease in the near future), low melting temperature, poor tensile properties at elevated temperatures, poor solvent resistance, hydrolytic instability, insufficient mechanical properties of films and molded plastics, and various combinations of these factors, all of which affect acceptance of the polymers in specific applications.

A major conclusion of the team is that biodegradable polymer technology is materials limited. That is, the technological development of biodegradable polymers is restricted presently by the range of these polymers that can fulfill processing and property requirements for many applications in which biodegradability would be an important materials property.

The level of testing and test protocol development is not as advanced in Japan as in the United States. This observation is not surprising since Japan has only recently focused attention on this area. The country is now moving rapidly to develop its own tests; recently a modification of the MITI biodegradation test for organic materials was accepted as an International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standard. The test, although similar to one developed at the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), is only for screening. Nevertheless, this is a beginning.

Acceptance of biodegradable polymers will depend on four unknowns: (1) customer response to costs that are considerably higher than conventional polymers; (2) possible legislation (particularly in water-soluble polymers); (3) the achievement of total biodegradability; and (4) the development of an infrastructure to collect, accept, and process biodegradable polymers as a generally available option for waste disposal. From the team's discussions, a reasonable estimate of achievable or needed selling costs would be two to four times the cost of the polymer or plastic being replaced. This range represents the perceived value of the application plus hidden factors such as savings on recovery, which could be included in the estimate of the selling cost acceptability. Legislation is considered likely in water-solubles and possible in disposable plastics, depending on the source. Total biodegradation, clearly demonstrated in one or more environments, is generally the only acceptable situation in Japan.

Until now, the concept of an infrastructure for disposal of biodegradable plastics and polymers has received minimal attention in Japan. The major thrust has been in the area of polymer development. This lack of infrastructure is probably a practical matter rather than an oversight: attention to disposal problems will follow successful polymer developments. The option of composting is beginning to receive some attention, particularly outside the large cities, where there always has been farm waste composting. Whether this will lead to accepting plastic waste for composting is far from clear. However, a few entrepreneurs are building and selling home composters to capitalize on the sentiments of composting proponents.

Although Japan is very active in biodegradable polymer and plastic research, the country has not yet decided to move ahead with the technology at home or abroad. The decision to do so probably will not be made until late in this decade.

At this time, the team believes that there is no major gap between the United States and Japan in the research aspects of biodegradable polymers. But if Japan begins to exploit the technology commercially, the country will have a better national program in place to promote its acceptance.

The advantages of the Japanese system for developing technology have been discussed many times in recent years. Development of biodegradable polymer technology in Japan over the past five years is typical of the country's approach. Before 1988, only two Japanese laboratories were involved in biodegradable polymers at the international level. These were the laboratories of Professor Yoshito Ikeda (in biomedical polymers) at Kyoto University and Dr. Yutaka Tokiwa at the National Institute of Bioscience and Human Technology, Tsukuba.

After 1988, when the Biochemical Industry Division became a separate unit in the Basic Industries Bureau of MITI, a national policy was established to:

As a result, the Japan Bioindustry Association and the Biodegradable Plastics Society were established to make policy, distribute funds, promote information exchange, and coordinate testing. Through various channels, a group of eight- to ten-year projects were funded.

Key factors in the Japanese approach to technology development are: (1) intellectual property generally belongs to the industry as a result of cooperative research efforts, in which researchers carry out work at academic and government institutes; (2) information is shared more freely among academic, governmental, and industrial laboratories; (3) the scientists concentrate on carefully selected and sometimes narrowly-defined research topics; and (4) the project coordinators redefine goals during annual reviews, but they do not reduce funding prematurely. The advantages that Japanese scientists and engineers have over their U.S. counterparts are: (1) they work together to determine the value of solving a problem, and (2) they share information more readily, if not totally.

Academic and governmental institutes are mainly funded by ministries. Professors, once established, do not have to spend time seeking funds, and students and researchers are supported by universities and institutes. In that respect, they are much more efficient in devoting their energies to research, despite the fact that facilities at many of these universities are not up to date. Typically, basic research starts at university and governmental laboratories, and development and processing are carried out at industry laboratories, which eventually produce new products. Tax incentives, grants, and low-interest loans encourage the development of new technology.

Industrial incentives seem to come from consumer products industries, which feel pressure from the public. Japan is a more environmentally sensitive country than most of the developed nations. For this reason, although incineration for energy is and continues to be a primary means of waste management for Japan, biodegradation is considered to be a very desirable future option.


The twelve companies that responded favorably to the request for funds to supplement the NSF grant were:

Eastman Chemical Co.
Gillette Co.
International Specialty Products
Johnson & Johnson
Kimberly Clark Corp.
Rohm & Haas Co.
Tambrands Inc.
United States Surgical Corp.
Zeneca BioProducts

The members of the fact-finding mission are also especially grateful to two of their Japanese hosts, Kazuhiko Fukuda of the Biodegradable Plastics Society (Dowa Building 7F, 5-10-5 Shimbashi Minato-ku, Tokyo 105), and Dr. Kyugo Tanaka of Rohm & Haas, Japan, K.K. Mr. Fukuda organized the team's schedule and made all of the arrangements for the site visits. Dr. Tanaka met with the team members each morning of the tour to provide directions and other information needed for the site visits. Without the exceptional dedication and commitment of these two men, the tour would have been very difficult to carry out and much less effective. Since the visit, Dr. Tanaka has retired from Rohm & Haas, Japan, and has established a consulting company, EMS Consultants Co. (Midori-ku, Yokohama, 227 Japan, FAX: 011081-45-961-9508, E-mail: 722061.435@compuserve. com; also see Reports of Organizations), which offers services and a newsletter in the field of biodegradable polymers and plastics.

Published: March 1995; WTEC Hyper-Librarian