The news about how petroleum-based plastics are affecting the environment and our health just keeps getting worse. Researchers have recently found microplastics embedded in the lungs of living people, and in the bodies of creatures that lurk within deepest, darkest reaches of the oceans. In addition to inventing new ways to clean up the mess we’ve made of our planet, we also need to find alternatives to plastic that eventually biodegrade.
One potential option is a new biomass material made from an unexpected source: rice. Grown in more than a hundred countries, rice is the world’s most popular cereal crop, and its starch can be modified into a bio-based resin that behaves a lot like synthetic polyethylene plastic.
A Japanese furniture company called Meuble Co. Ltd. is developing a material they call RICEWAVE to replace the polyethylene they typically use to produce the cushions for their furniture, like the Dorothy Sofa Bed pictured below. Working with partner companies Biomass Resin Holdings and Mitsui & Co. Plastics Ltd., Meuble has spent the last five years prototyping products made with biomass materials.
Rice stood out as a strong contender because it’s grown locally to the company, within Japan. Not only does rice resin make use of inedible waste rice that normally gets thrown away, it can also be purpose-grown in abandoned agricultural areas of the country as an economic stimulant.
“Abandoned cultivated land in Japan is vast, exceeding the size of two Tokyo metropolitan areas,” the company explains, adding: “We have started making rice for rice resin in this abandoned land, which will lead to agricultural support and aim to revitalize the region.”
Using bio-based rice resin instead of petroleum-based plastic comes with another benefit: lower CO2 emissions. Mitsui & Co., which specializes in raw materials, says replacing just 30 percent of the petroleum-based plastic in a shopping bag with rice biomass can cut emissions by 30 percent.
Meuble Co. hopes RICEWAVE will ultimately replace polyethylene altogether in its core material, the petroleum-based “LITEWAVE,” which it produces using in-house patented technology. As is usually the case when attempting to switch to bio-based materials, that will require big changes to the manufacturing process. It won’t be cheap or easy, but Meuble Co. thinks it will be worth it, especially if they’re successful at proving rice-based furniture materials perform just as well as their synthetic alternatives.
Rice resin can also be used to replace at least some of the petroleum-based materials in trash bags, cutlery, toys, food packaging, and other consumer products. Currently, many so-called biodegradable packaging materials don’t fully break down in the environment because they contain small quantities of synthetic polymers like polyolefin. Replacing those polymers with rice resin or similar bio-based materials could actually make biodegradable products more durable and give them the ability to replace synthetic fiber-reinforced plastics in all kinds of products, even within the automotive industry.
Other parts of rice plants can be diverted to similarly eco-friendly uses. Though currently the standard practice is to simply let it rot, rice waste like husks, straw, and bran could be used for building materials, fertilizer, biomass fuels and more.