Converting Rice into Low-Carbon Plastic: Bringing Hope to Struggling Fukushima City

Nami, Japan (Reuters) – Genichi Abe smiles as he watches diggers work the land near rice fields, realizing that they are still bringing more fields back to productivity after the Fukushima nuclear reactors exploded and caused radiation in the area more than a decade ago.

Better yet, Abe knows the rice he grows with a co-op will have a steady buyer, and the town of Namie, still struggling to recover from the March 2011 disaster, has a new hope: a project that makes rice unsalable for consumption due to health concerns in low-grade plastic. Carbon used by big companies all over Japan.

Last November, Tokyo-based Biomass Resin opened a factory in Namee to turn locally grown rice into pellets. Raw materials are reborn as low-carbon plastic cutlery, take-out food containers used in chain restaurants, plastic bags at post offices, and souvenirs sold at one of Japan’s largest international airports.

“Without rice cultivation, this town cannot recover,” said Abe, 85, a 13th-generation farmer. He said the rice — unsellable due to rumors — had been used as animal feed, among other uses, in previous years. “So far, we can’t sell it as Fukushima rice.

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“So having biomass has been a big help. We can grow rice without worry.”

Parts of Namie stretch from forested slopes of mountains to the ocean, and lie just 4 kilometers from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEEPCO), which has provided employment for many – including Abe’s son and grandson. The factory chimneys can be clearly seen from Okido Beach, below an elementary school that was destroyed by the tsunami of March 11, 2011.

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The same wave hit the nuclear plant, resulting in meltdowns and explosions. The residents of Namie were first evacuated from the interior on March 12, but then, as radiation levels rose, they were told to move out of the city entirely with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

No one was allowed back in until 2017, after decontamination efforts left tons of radioactive soil stored around the city for years, including in the fields across from Abby’s. About 80% of the city’s land remains foreclosed and 2,000 people do not live there, compared to 21,000 previously.

There is a major shopping centre, clinic, 2 dentists, combined primary and secondary school – and a dearth of jobs. In better times, there was a thriving trade in pottery and agriculture along the coastal plain.

“Basically, we want businesses that create as many jobs as possible – basically, manufacturing,” said Satoshi Kono, a town official who acknowledges that things are “still tough.”

Since 2017, eight companies, including a concrete plant, aquaculture and electric battery recycling plant, have stepped in, generating about 200 jobs. Discussions are ongoing with other research institutes and may still bring more people.

Hit by four disasters

The biomass resin, whose factory is arranged on land originally set aside for another nuclear plant, is of the newest variety.

“Nami was hit by four disasters – the earthquake, the tsunami, the reactor accident and then rumors of radiation danger,” said Takemitsu Imazu, president of Biomass Resin Fukushima.

“Most of it has recovered from the earthquake and tsunami, but the other two are still heavy burdens… By building our factory here, we want to create jobs and invite people back.”

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The aroma of roasted rice wafts around the factory line as the rice is ground into small plastic granules, heated and kneaded before being extruded into thin bars which are then cooled and cut into small brown granules. Pellets, either 50% or 70% rice, are sent to companies that make plastic goods.

Plastic isn’t biodegradable, Imazu said, but using rice reduces petroleum products — and growing more rice in Namie reduces total carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Atomic contamination experts said rice naturally absorbs a little bit of radioactive cesium. Additional testing didn’t find any rice that exceeded strict limits, which means plastic is fine, too.

“There is no safety issue,” said Atsushi Nakao, assistant professor at Kyoto Prefectural University. “I really regret that rice was not consumed due to safety rumors, but I also understand that it is difficult to completely refute the aversion.”

Biomass Resin employs 10 people in Namie, including a 20-year-old who has returned and hopes to expand. It currently uses only about 50 tons of nami rice — the rest of the 1,500 tons needed mainly from elsewhere in Fukushima — but will buy more next year from Abe and his co-op, which is planted in the newly cleared fields.

Abe, whose son will soon retire from Tepco and join him in rice farming, is optimistic.

“This is something important for Nami’s continuation, and it’s a really good thing for the town,” he said.

Reporting by Eileen Lies. Editing by Simon Cameron Moore

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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