Nissin to introduce instant noodle cups partially made from sugar cane-derived plastic
But while this is an eco-friendly solution, as with many things relating to the environment, it gets complicated.
Instant noodles have pretty excessive packaging — dried noodles come in a styrofoam or paper cup encircled in plastic labels, then wrapped in another layer of transparent plastic.
Famous Japanese instant noodle brand Nissin, however, will be reinventing its conventional Cup noodles in a bid to fix this problem.
Incorporating material from sugar cane
According to Nikkei on June 10, 2019, the cup noodle giant will be introducing a new plant-derived material to the production of its instant noodle cups.
The material will be made from biomass polyethylene resin (also known as bio-based PE), and will be derived from sugar cane plants.
It will make up 10 to 20 per cent of the final product.
Currently, Nissin cups consist of 70 per cent paper and 30 per cent petrochemical material.
The new material, however, will replace half the petrochemical content in Nissin cup containers (so it becomes roughly 70 per cent paper, 15 per cent petrochemical and 15 per cent bio-based PE).
Bio-based PE will be incorporated in phases into Nissin’s mainstay line of Cup Noodle products, starting with batches made in and for the Japanese market from December 2019.
The transition to these mixed material cups is expected to be fully completed in Japan by the end of March 2022.
And what about other countries? Nissin says it will do so, but no specific timeline was reported.
More restrictions on plastics globally
Increasing environmental restrictions on single-use plastics around the world was one of the factors prompting the introduction of Nissin’s new plant-derived material, Nikkei reported.
Nissin currently operates offices and factories in countries worldwide, from several in Southeast Asia, to the United Kingdom, Sweden and Australia.
Faced with waste piling up in landfills and choking marine life, several countries have made the move to restrict single-use plastics.
The European Union for example, voted 571 to 53 members to ban single-use plastics such as straws, plates and food containers by 2021.
Even countries closer to home like Malaysia have declared their intention to eliminate single-use plastics by 2030.
Reducing carbon emissions
Another reason for the plant-based plastic introduced by Nissin is reportedly the need for a reduction of carbon emissions.
With plastics becoming public enemy number one of the green movement, bioplastics such as the sugar cane-derived material Nissin is using have emerged as a promising alternative.
However, the issue is much more complicated than it appears.
A short explanation on bioplastics: the term basically refers to plastics manufactured from plants or other biological material instead of petroleum, according to National Geographic. It is made from extracting sugar from plants like sugarcane or corn.
This is where it gets slightly more technical.
Proponents of bioplastics argue that the material is carbon neutral and leads to an overall decrease in carbon footprint.
The carbon released when these bioplastics are discarded and degraded is the same amount absorbed by the plants they are made from — there would thus be no net increase in carbon emissions.
Compare this with normal plastics made from petroleum, which releases carbon previously trapped underground as oil.
But the production of bioplastics isn’t all green
However, a 2011 study revealed that the bioplastic production process can also give rise to adverse environmental consequences — pollution from fertilisers being one of them.
The making of bioplastics also requires huge amounts of land to farm plants like corn and sugarcane. Diverting resources toward the production of plastics instead of food in an increasingly food-scarce world presents another point of contention.
And they’re not biodegradable
You would think that the word “bio” in front of “plastics” would entail some sort of eco-friendly advantage and by extension mean the material is biodegradable, but sadly, this isn’t the case.
There are two types of bioplastics — durable and biodegradable. The bio-based PE that Nissin will be using falls under “durable”, meaning the plastics are completely not biodegradable.
Bio-based PE possesses the same properties as normal plastic. Although they do help to reduce carbon emissions, these bioplastics still need to be recycled.
If discarded in the ocean for example, durable bioplastics will take decades, or even hundreds of years, to degrade naturally like any other conventional plastic.
That being said, “biodegradable” bioplastics aren’t exactly perfect either, and come with their own share of caveats.
These bioplastics only break down completely under the right conditions at a proper industrial composting facility, according to HuffPost.
They are unlikely to degrade in household compost bins, and to make it worse, large industrial composting facilities are few and far between.
So now that we’ve found out that bioplastics aren’t the panacea to the world’s plastic problem, what should we do now?
Perhaps companies like Nissin should be applauded for taking that first step to make their Cup Noodles just that little bit more environmentally friendly.
It’s impossible for large businesses to make a 180-degree switch to greener alternatives in their supply chain, but increased awareness of the nuances and potential pitfalls of a material like bioplastics will still help in the long run.
And hopefully with Japan’s responsible trend of recycling, most of Nissin’s plant-derived cups in the future won’t end up languishing in a landfill or the stomach of a whale.
Top photo by Zheng Zhangxin