Quintessentially Japanese Sustainable New Materials

Porcelain and a cardboard box made with new materials
Japanese porcelain (left) and a specialized box made with new materials born of shards of the same porcelain. (Photo courtesy of Maruichi Inc.)

   Japanese companies from various industries are developing new materials in pursuit of creating a sustainable society. They are based on a wide range of source materials, such as discarded rice and vegetables, cloth that failed to meet strict product quality standards, and shards of Japanese porcelain. What kinds of new materials will emerge by repurposing these waste products that used to be simply discarded?

Fighting Food Waste with Rice Paper and Building Materials Made from Food

   Food waste has become a serious issue around the world, including in Japan. Two companies have taken a novel approach to tackling this problem by developing new materials from upcycled discarded food.

This building material is a new material made from various types of food waste and boasts four times the bending strength of concrete. (Photo courtesy of fabula Inc.)

   The first of these companies succeeded in creating a new material made from discarded food that is stronger than concrete. Food waste and substandard vegetables are dried, pulverized, put into molds, and shaped using thermocompression. The material created through this process can be used to make furniture, and there are high hopes for its future application as a building material.

From among over 70 types of food waste, Chinese cabbage (top right) yielded the strongest new material. (Photo courtesy of fabula Inc.)

A chair built with new materials derived from discarded food (the seat is made from coffee, while the legs are made from Chinese cabbage). (Photo courtesy of fabula Inc.)

   The second company has developed a new type of paper made from rice, Japan's staple food. Food banks are becoming more common in Japan today, which are where people in need can receive food aid. This company has created a new material made from expired rice taken from food banks or rice stockpiles stored in case of disasters. The rice is ground into rice flour and mixed with the raw materials used to make paper.

Made partly from rice flour, this new material has been turned into various products and sold. (Photo courtesy of Papal Co., Ltd.)

   This new material of paper made with rice flour took some inspiration from traditional Japanese culture. Ukiyo-e paintings, which have come to represent Japanese art, were painted on paper that was made by mixing rice paste and rice flour into the raw materials. Rice was highly prized for the way it made the paper white and smooth, bringing forth the beauty of the ukiyo-e paintings, as well as how it prevented pictures from showing through on the reverse side of the paper. The new paper material also has a distinctive white color and soft, smooth feel. This new material is the result of a marriage between Japanese tradition and modern technology.

With its luxurious texture, this new material is ideal for product packaging. (Photo courtesy of Earth Label LLC.)

A New Material with a Natural Texture Made from Substandard Cloth

   Although the Japanese fashion industry produces high-quality products, large quantities of cloth are rejected for failing to meet the strict quality standards, which is a problem. Spotting an opportunity, a company succeeded in using a brand-new technology to beautifully upcycle substandard cloth by hardening it with plant-derived resin to create a new material.

A new material made from substandard cloth that would otherwise have been discarded. (Photo courtesy of Seishoku Co., Ltd.)

   This new material is characterized by its natural feel and is made by alternating layers of cloth that were going to be discarded with sheets of resin, applying thermocompression so the resin permeates the cloth, and then allowing it to harden. Not only can the new material be used in the same way as wood, it can also be made into sheets with an elegant look and unique texture like natural stone or wood grain, entirely distinct from the original fabric. Its versatility opens up new markets in fields such as construction and interior design.

Left: The new material made from substandard cloth and plant-derived resin is highly versatile, like wood. (Photo courtesy of Seishoku Co., Ltd.)
Right: An example of interior design in a hotel utilizing the new material in the form of sheets with beautifully designed patterns. (Photo courtesy of Seishoku Co., Ltd.)

Cardboard Made from the Shards of Traditional Porcelain

   When porcelain is transported in modern-day Japan, most of the packaging is made from corrugated cardboard. A new material has started being use for this corrugated cardboard, made by upcycling the porcelain shards which otherwise tend to end up in landfills more frequently than other types of industrial waste.

Left: Porcelain shards are more likely to end up in landfills than other types of industrial waste. (Photo courtesy of Maruichi Inc.)
Right: The new material is made by mixing the standard base paper material for making cardboard with crushed porcelain shards. (Photo courtesy of Maruichi Inc.)

   A company from a city known for its porcelain developed a new type of paper by mixing crushed porcelain shards into the raw materials used to make cardboard. This cardboard is then used as packaging material for porcelain products, leading to the emergence of a waste-reducing system that circulates resources in this thriving center of porcelain production.

   These distinctively Japanese new sustainable materials are the result of facing the problems that are right before our eyes, such as waste being simply thrown away, and they represent a new step toward solving these issues.