Japanese companies turn discarded food into new products, reducing waste

TOKYO — Despite throwing away about 90 pounds of food per person each year, Japan doesn’t rank at the top of the world’s list of waste offenders. Still, what is discarded represents a serious problem for an island nation with limited landfill space and a goal of greater sustainability.

Reinvention may offer an alternative. Japanese companies are taking used vegetable peelings, cooking oil, eggshells, and other food products and making entirely different products. Cement, for example. Even furniture.

Here are three companies with solutions they hope will help their country cut food waste in half by 2030, maybe saving a little bit of the planet along the way.

Tourists enjoy the Japanese countryside while riding the tourist train of the Takachiho Amaterasu Railway. Posing with the pink and white train is one of the favorite images for tourists visiting the city of Takachiho, in southern Japan. The ingredients for the biodiesel fuel that powers the train come from a couple of thousand restaurants in Japan.

A train with lard soup

After a powerful typhoon in 2005 destroyed the railway in Takachiho, a city of about 12,000 in southern Japan, local leaders decided it was too expensive to restore full train operations. The loss jeopardized an essential source of the town’s economic activity.

The reconstruction that began on the railway itself is still underway. But a two-car open-air train that offers tourists stunning views of the countryside now runs daily: its fuel is processed from leftover lard from tonkotsu ramen soup and residue cooking oil from tempura, which is collected from about 2,000 restaurants in Japan.

The chief executive of the company working to rebuild the train’s operations, Takachiho Amaterasu Railway, focused on environmental issues from the start. Fumihiko Takayama believed that the town’s residents were partially responsible for the devastation from the storm due to trees that had been cut down for homes and businesses. developing. He wanted to make sure that the company’s work did not cause more damage.

Tourists board the Takachiho Amaterasu Railway tourist train for a five kilometer journey through the Japanese countryside. Hiroyoshi Saitoh is the general manager of the railway. The company focuses on sustainability to better protect the environment. The head of the facility, Daiki Nishiura, refuels the train between his daily tours.

Amaterasu is working with Nishida Shoun, a Fukuoka transportation company, which produces about 3,000 liters of biodiesel a day at its plant. The fuel powers the Amaterasu Grand Super Cart on the scenic three-mile round trip taken by thousands of tourists from Japan and abroad.

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“We wanted it to be more than just a tourist attraction, one that could educate people about history, culture and the environment,” said Hiroyoshi Saitoh, the company’s general manager. “By implementing biodiesel, we wanted to make people more aware of biodiesel and environmental issues, especially for students who come here on school trips.”

One thing many of them notice: the biodiesel smells like tonkotsu ramen or fried rice from a Chinese restaurant. And the minimal smoke it emits is white, a vast difference from the thick black smoke and gasoline smell of regular diesel.

Kota Machida, CEO of the start-up Fabula, checks dried food waste in a laboratory at the University of Tokyo. Fabula makes coasters out of “food cement,” specifically bok choy (above), burdock, and coffee. Fabula discovered that almost any discarded food can become your food cement.

Dried food scraps turned into cement

Concrete is the most widely used construction material in the world, and its key ingredient, cement, is one of the main pollutants of greenhouse emissions, accounting for 8 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the international research group Chatham House.

So what if a more sustainable alternative to making cement from food waste was possible, which would also help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from landfills where that waste would otherwise be dumped? That’s the idea behind Fabula, a Tokyo-based startup.

Founded in 2021 by researchers at the University of Tokyo, Fabula discovered a recipe for creating food concrete by drying food scraps, compressing them, and then pressing them into a mold at a high temperature. The company started with commonly discarded items like cabbage, orange peels, and onion peels, but found that almost any food item can be used. (Even a bento, or boxed lunch, from a convenience store worked.) Now mainly ground coffee is needed and tea leaves to make their cement. The durability of the product depends on the ingredient.

Fabula is currently producing bespoke household items such as coasters and plates while it awaits its patent. The goal is to make larger furniture and structures once technology is able to make cement more durable.

The company hopes to work with farmers who have surplus crops and construction companies looking for sustainable alternatives. Food manufacturing companies that cannot avoid generating waste during their processes have also approached the company to work, said Takuma Oishi, Fabula’s business director.

“We also hope that maybe we can become a kind of matching service between companies that have food waste and companies that want to build things out of those materials,” he said.

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Since cement is 100 percent edible, it could create opportunities during disaster response when temporary structures need to be built quickly, Oishi added. Evacuees placed in them might even turn to them for sustenance.

If technology advances enough, he suggested, one day evacuees will be able to “eat houses or furniture when necessary.”

NOD staff members in Tokyo work to turn eggshells and coffee beans into 3D-printed furniture. Yes, this chair was created using coffee grounds and a 3D printer. One step of the 3D printing process begins at NOD. Coffee grinders and 3D printing create a stylish table top at NOD.

Sitting on eggshells in 3D-printed chairs

The 15th-century Japanese technique of kintsugi, meaning “join with gold,” uses lacquer mixed with powdered gold to repair broken pottery. His underlying ethos is that mistakes and imperfections can be turned into something beautiful and meaningful.

Yusuke Mizobata, CEO of Tokyo-based design firm NOD, considers kintsugi a forerunner of the modern concept of upcycling. It’s the inspiration behind his work to turn coffee grounds and eggshells into minimalist 3D-printed furniture.

“I think recycling is actually a very natural part of Japanese culture, but things have become too convenient nowadays, where we can buy everything we need,” he said. “In the past, people used what was around them in more creative ways. … [With] technology, we can encourage people to do it.”

The idea came when Mizobata and his colleagues were working on spatial design projects and saw how quickly furniture for commercial spaces like hotels was being built and dismantled. They wanted to find a more sustainable option.

Their 3D printing ink is made from coffee grounds, eggshells, and other foods that are dried and mixed together. with resins. That mixture is turned into granules that are melted down to get the ink they need. Japan, Mizobata noted, is one of the few countries with 3D printers that can create materials up to 10 feet tall.

NOD makes furniture on commission, but its CEO hopes the technology will become more accessible and common so people can easily create items out of food they would otherwise throw away. Ultimately, Mizobata hopes that the growth of furniture made from food waste can help change people’s mindsets about consumption and encourage them to recycle rather than buy new.

“Although now people are more aware of upcycling and sustainability, it is still difficult [for many] to integrate it into their daily life,” he said.

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