Ajinomoto Co., Inc. Takes on Another Challenge
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in plastic waste, both in mass media and in social media. In particular, plastic waste in our oceans has been a hot topic, as well as the existence of “microplastic,” deﬁned as particles of plastic less than 5mm in length1.
Microplastic consists of microﬁbers from synthetic fabrics, microbeads used in some hygiene and beauty categories, and other tiny plastic particles that result from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic over time.
Of course, this is not an entirely new issue. For decades, countless people and companies around the world have been following the “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach, which aims to reduce plastic waste by decreasing the amount of plastic that is required as well as the amount that’s thrown away. But plastic waste is a stubborn problem—like plastic itself, it never seems to go away.
Plastic facts you should know
- Plastic production worldwide has increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons in 20152
- Of the 7.8 billion tons of plastic produced between 1950 and 2015, about half has been produced in the last 13 years2
- The increase in plastic production is rising faster than the increase in world population
Reducing Plastic Production
If you think about it, the “three R’s”—reduce, reuse, and recycle—are listed in order of diﬃculty, from easiest to hardest. As a global food product manufacturer, Ajinomoto Co. has been focusing on reducing plastic production for many years.
Since the year 2000, our plastic reduction eﬀorts have reached 72 of our products, resulting in an annual reduction of plastic use by about 3,500 tons. To visualize how large that amount is, consider that an average Asian elephant weighs 2.5 to 5.5 tons. So we have reduced plastic use by the equivalent of the weight of 1,000 elephants per year3.
In some cases, plastic can be replaced by another material. For example, by changing our “HON-DASHI®” ﬂavor seasoning product’s packaging from plastic to paper, we were able to avoid producing 11 tons of plastic each year.
In other cases, when the use of plastic is essential in terms of product safety and shelf life, but with the improvement of product shape and ﬁlling method, more compact (light weight) packaging can still be considered. For example, in our “Blendy® Café Latory®” instant coﬀee product, we were able to reduce the length of the “stick” packages by 20mm, leading to another reduction of 20 tons of plastic.
The list goes on and on, and the products we have targeted are not only in the Japanese market—we were able to eliminate more than 2,000 tons of plastic per year by redesigning the portion size of our “Masako®” seasoning product, which is marketed in Indonesia.
Examples of plastic reduction in the Ajinomoto Group’s products
What about “reuse”?
“Reuse,” the second of the “Three R’s,” is a great idea—if the material is right. For example, we reuse glass all the time, because it’s strong and easy to clean. Of course, durable plastic items such as cafeteria trays and lawn chairs are used many times. But single-use plastics, including PET bottles, are not appropriate for reuse in terms of strength and hygiene.
Recycling: The Biggest Challenge
Unfortunately, reducing plastic use is not enough to eliminate plastic waste. To reach our goal, we must place a strong focus on recycling. For most people, recycling plastic probably doesn’t seem very diﬃcult. Just your PET bottles from the rest of the garbage, and a truck comes and takes everything away. But the truth is that plastic recycling is a lot more complicated than most people think. The reason is that there are many diﬀerent types of plastic, and there are various ways in which they can be recycled.
PET bottle recycling rates
On the other hand, the plastic used in food packaging is much harder to recycle. The primary function of this plastic is to ensure the safety of food, which also results in reduced food loss. This involves providing a barrier against bacteria, moisture, ultraviolet light, and other potential “food spoilers.” To achieve this function, the plastic used in food packaging consists of multiple, dissimilar layers. Therefore, it cannot simply be compacted together and used again the way that PET bottles can.
Example of plastic layer types and functions in food packaging
Among the varieties of plastic, PET bottles are relatively simple to recycle. The reason is that PET bottles uniformly consist of just one type of plastic—polyethylene
terephthalate (which is what PET stands for). Therefore,
PET bottles can be compacted together and then used to make new bottles, or other materials and products such as fabric, other plastic items like cafeteria trays, and even stationery goods4.
As a result, the recycling rate of PET bottles is relatively higher than other types of plastic—85% in Japan, 42% in Europe, and 21% in the United States.
More plastic facts you should know
- Plastic used for packaging accounts for 42% of total plastic production.
- As of 2015, 79% of the plastic ever produced is now in landﬁlls or in the natural environment, 12% has been incinerated, and only 9% has been recycled.
Innovation in Plastic Recycling
Researchers and scientists the world over are exploring new avenues to solve this problem. One promising avenue is the development of new materials. Recently, biodegratdable plastic made from cassava recently captured the attention and imagination of the media, with the potential of replacing the non-degradable plastic bags commonly used in supermarkets and convenience stores. Unfortunately, biodegradable plastic has low biostability—in other words, it is sensitive to degradation by biological agents. This makes it unsuitable for food packaging, in which the plastic must act as a barrier against biological agents. Furthermore, for practical reasons, solubility is not necessarily a desirable quality for the plastics used in food
Plastics management in the circular economy
Another approach is to consider diﬀerent ways of recycling. There are three major methods: material recycling (recycling to plastic materials), chemical recycling (recycling to plastic raw materials), and energy recovery (recovery as energy).
Although each method has strengths and weaknesses, Ajinomoto Co. pays attention to all innovations and developments that can oﬀer practical and positive solutions as we drive towards elimination of plastic waste. Ultimately, we believe that the best solutions will be those that contribute to a “circular economy” that minimizes waste and optimizes the use of existing resources.
Working Independently and in Cooperation
Reducing plastic waste to zero by the year 2030 requires a monumental eﬀort, and it cannot be achieved by any one corporation. That’s why Ajinomoto Co. is actively seeking partnerships. For example, we are a charter member of CLOMA—the Clean Oceans Material Alliance—which was established earlier this year by industry, government, and research institutes. CLOMA is taking a multi-faceted approach to change the “plastic ecosystem,” including the behavior of individuals, through a combination of innovation, collaboration, and promotional activities.
Ajinomoto Co. has implemented meaningful reductions in the amount of plastic we use by rethinking our packaging, product by product. Of course, this eﬀort will continue. In addition, we are putting forth a comprehensive eﬀort to recycle as much of the plastic as is technologically possible.
We ﬁrmly believe that through a combination of our cooperative and independent eﬀorts, we will fulﬁll our responsibility to help create “the circular economy” that will sustainably help people to eat well and live well, well into the future.