Written by Staff Writer at CNN Tokyo, By David Brookbank
(CNN) — On the southernmost tip of Japan, the tiny coastal town of Nara nestles between mountains and craggy beaches. It’s home to the official shrine for the local shrines and emperor. And, since 2008, it’s been the testing ground for an “edible” plastic bag alternative — one that could help feed the the town’s deer herds.
Gently seeping from cracks and crevices in the earth, the deer herd has flourished here, despite temperatures regularly sinking to 40 degrees Celsius below zero in winter.
When Nara was first approached by food processing company Odudu in 2008, the town was familiar with plastic bags. They were produced locally by local firms and sold at lower prices than normal plastic bags.
But nothing much was done about the problem. “We didn’t have a full-fledged ‘edible’ plastic bag management scheme until 2008,” recalls Akio Odudu, the company’s president. “So we decided to see how we could help. “
The post-industrial problems in the steel-rich town, once a showcase for Japan’s innovation, had just found new life.
This area, known as the “Silicon Valley of Japan,” was rapidly losing jobs and attracting an influx of immigrants from a nearby town, sparking frustration among locals that their quaint town had become “almost like a mining town”. In May 2011, protests calling for more sports fields and a railway line in the town prompted the local government to collapse.
What followed was a slow, grassroots movement to improve Nara. By 2014, Nara’s Council had voted to save the deer herds, working with Odudu on a set of objectives, all of which could be verified as working through science.
The town chose Odudu as its partner. The food processing company, which produces sushi and a whole range of processed food products, got the major idea for its eco-friendly bag, which has now been sampled at over 40 retailers and restaurants in Nara, the prefecture and other Japanese cities.
One may have seen such bags at a supermarket before. But once you interact with them, you may be disappointed. First, each one is covered in layers of salt so that they don’t dissolve and become water. Second, they’re made of a soft plastic that wears off rather quickly. Third, they’re dotted with almost microscopic spikes that help them stick.
This is not the kind of product any average person would want to bring home. But people are coming to try them.
The idea “shocks us,” says Tomiko Kumagai, sales manager for Odudu’s Nara branch. “It makes us feel our existence is somehow sacred. Yet we can help people who already eat meat who are keen to have this kind of convenience.”
Japanese food companies have also taken the initiative. The company Shiseido supplies the bags to a local store chain, making them completely edible. Market leader Sojitz commissioned its own firm to produce a series of bags, as well as a barbeque set, and offer the plates to hotels.
The packaging industry had an important role to play in helping Nara get on the right path. Because supermarkets have seen sales of organic food rise steeply, “it is hard to differentiate a local brand from that,” says Sue Miura, the CEO of the food and packaging technology business Fujita, which runs Odudu’s packaging laboratory.
It’s not the first time the packaging industry has played a big role in re-purposing its products and donating to charities. More than 250,000 cardboard boxes are donated to food banks in Japan each year, providing groceries to people on the streets, without any cost to the participants.
The next stage will be to let the public know more about where its products come from and what they can do with them. The first step will be a website from Odudu that will catalog the history of Nara’s residents and species and how the locals are feeding their survivalist lifestyle.
But in the long term, the bags are to be sold locally to help the deer herds recover.
The wider goal for Odudu is that the bags don’t become a luxury product; more like the premium pick of another kind of supermarket.