Rice into low-carbon plastic: bringing hope to a struggling Fukushima town

Rice into low-carbon plastic: bringing hope to a struggling Fukushima town

NAMIE, Japan, March 9 (Reuters) – Jinichi Abe smiles as he watches diggers work the soil near his rice fields, knowing they are bringing even more fields back to productivity after the Fukushima nuclear reactors exploded and sprayed the area with radiation over a decade ago.

Even better, Abe knows the rice he and a cooperative grow will have a steady buyer, and his town of Namie, still struggling to recover from the March 2011 disaster, has a new hope: a venture that makes the rice unsaleable for consumption due to health concerns over the low-carbon plastic used by large firms across Japan.

Last November, Tokyo-based firm Biomass Resin opened a factory in Namie to turn locally grown rice into pellets. The raw materials are reborn as low-carbon plastic cutlery and shipping containers used in chain restaurants, plastic bags in 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, who said the rice – unsellable because of rumors – was used as animal feed, among others, in previous years. “Even now we cannot sell it as Fukushima rice.

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“So the arrival of Biomass was a big help. We can grow rice without worries.”

Spreading from the forested slopes of the mountains on the ocean side, parts of Namie lie just 4 km from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant run by Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), which provided jobs for many people – including the son and Abe’s grandson. . The factory’s chimneys are clearly visible from Ukedo Beach, below an elementary school destroyed by the March 11, 2011 tsunami.

The same wave crashed into the nuclear power plant, causing meltdowns and explosions. The residents of Namie were initially evacuated inland on March 12, but then, as radiation levels rose, they were ordered out of the city entirely with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

None were allowed to live until 2017, after decontamination efforts left tons of radioactive soil stored around the city for years, including in fields across from Abe’s. About 80% of the city’s land remains off limits, and not only 2,000 people live there, compared to 21,000 previously.

There is a large shopping mall, a clinic, two dentists, a combined primary and secondary school – and a shortage of jobs. In better times, there had been a thriving pottery and farming business along the coastal plain.

“Basically, we want businesses that will create as many jobs as possible – basically, manufacturing,” said city official Satoshi Konno, who admits things are “still tough.”

Since 2017, eight companies have moved in, including a concrete plant, aquaculture and an EV battery recycler, generating around 200 jobs. Discussions are ongoing with others and research institutes may bring in more people.

Struck by four disasters

Biomasa Resin, whose regular plant is located on land originally earmarked for another nuclear power plant, is one of the newest.

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

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

An aroma of toasted rice hangs around the factory line, where the rice is combined with small plastic beads, heated and cooked before being extruded into thin bars that are cooled and cut into small brown pellets. The pellets, either 50% or 70% rice, are then sent to companies that make plastic goods.

Plastic is not biodegradable, Imazu said, but using rice cuts the petroleum products involved — and growing more rice in Namie reduces overall atmospheric CO2.

Atomic contamination experts said rice naturally picks up some radioactive cesium. Additional testing found no rice above the strict limits, which means the plastic is fine too.

“There is no safety issue,” said Atsushi Nakao, an associate professor at Kyoto Prefectural University. “I am very sorry that the rice is not consumed because of the safety rumours, but I also understand that it is difficult to completely dismiss the abominations.”

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

Abe, whose son will soon retire from Tepco and join him growing rice, is hopeful.

“This is an important thing to keep Namie going, a really good thing for the city,” he said.

Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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