Trash to treasure: Trilogy in joyful sustainability


Sonny Coloma

Living as we do in a climate vulnerable country, Filipinos are accustomed to read and hear about sustainability as being equated with minimizing carbon dioxide emissions as a way of mitigating the harsh impact of global warming: destructive typhoons and floods that wreak havoc on lives and property.

Looking northward to Japan and tuning in to NHK World’s highly educational online video programs enables us to gain fresh insights into how caring for the environment could be done in highly innovative — even heartwarming — ways.

Eatery Happiness Exchange, broadcast on NHK World on April 15, 2022, begins with this compelling statement: “A life force resides in all creation. Valuing and caring for the things that we use: a Zero Waste Life — pointing the way for better living for a new era.”

This first story is on Suyama Kimi, an agriculture graduate who opted to become an entrepreneur by establishing her own small eatery in an off-farm site in Kami, Kochi prefecture in western Japan. Two years ago, she started offering evening food service delivered to homes — and this gained support from people in the area.

The enterprise is built on a simple proposition: to utilize perfectly edible farm produce that is not sold to mainline distributors due to substandard appearance. The features are often too subtle for the untrained observer to notice the so-called defects. For example, an oversized, ‘giant’ radish is shown being pulled out of the ground and turned over to Suyama, who gladly accepted it as she could convert it to a menu item for diners in her eatery.

Suyama goes off to her farm suppliers after lunch service in order to scout for raw materials. Farmers also visit her restaurant and bring in fresh supplies. Among her favorite raw materials are carrot leaves and daikon peels, similar to mild red radish, that are usually discarded, but which Suyama favors. She learned from her father that daikon peels are very delicious.

Every item on her menu sells for less than US$7, or around ₱350. Diners’ favorites include carrot leaf tempura and sweet and spicy fruit with daikon peel. She also has a special rice and soup combo that is offered on an eat-all-you-can basis, and this is a favorite among family diners with toddlers and young children.

Farmers from the area support her by turning over fresh produce and even donating small amounts to sustain her operations.

Inoue Hirito, 12 years old, helps her out in the eatery every Saturday — a practice that started at the height of the pandemic when she could not play soccer with friends. She says she enjoys talking with the diners.

In Jeans Genie, another episode of Zero Waste Life, Kawahara Takuya shares his unique story: “Old denim has history, a personality of its own. I keep that from being destroyed.”

He operates from a warehouse in a quiet Tokyo neighborhood where he weaves his magic as a creative apparel director who transforms “damaged, not wearable, discarded as trash” denim into recycled and refashioned denim that is sold in department stores as attractive comfortable clothing. His partner, Yamasawa Ryoji brought in 20 tons of discarded jeans when he visited the United States. That marked the start of their partnership: Yamasawa as owner and Kawahara as designer.

Selected jeans are washed with soap and water to remove dirt. Then buttons, pockets, and sections of the pants or jackets that could be reused are picked. Yamasawa’s keen fashion sense and sensibility are evident. He says, “The paint spatter and such (on the fabric): you could feel the worker’s backbone,” as he imagines a customer relishing the experience of wearing a refashioned denim jacket. Holding another pair of discarded pants, he plans to repurpose it as a pair of baggy jeans that women like to wear — or a denim duffel bag, or even a tabletop doggy figurine.

“I never throw anything away; I want to preserve the feel of denim, it’s fun to handle the material,” he says smilingly.

From Rubbish to Rainbow is a third segment that depicts how clothes are dyed by using recycled onion skin and other discarded food such as pomegranate skin and defective coffee beans. As we noted earlier, discarded food is edible and useful, but this is usually “eliminated” by quality inspectors for minor, almost invisible defects or for being too big or too small in size for the intended finished product.

“It’s nice to wear fabric infused with energy, says social entrepreneur Komuro Maito, who works out of Tokyo’s Kuramae section as an independent artisan who inherited his father’s dyeing business. He goes to Ibaraki prefecture, an hour and a half drive, to get raw materials such as pruned branches from trees. Dogwood bark, for instance, produces interesting color after the trimmings incinerated in order to extract dye. Branches are also boiled for about 20 minutes and dyes are made from leaves.

Here’s Komuro’s quotable quote: “Don’t just label something as trash. That so-called trash could turn out to be treasure.”