Bento is a single-portion home-packed or takeout meal common in Japanese cuisine. You can buy bento boxes from any cafe or convenience store in Japan. Bento boxes which are not bought usually end up on scrapheap. This is where Agri Gaia steps in.
Bento boxes contain sushi (picture), as well as rice balls and noodles
The company ‘Agri Gaia’ is located in the town of Sakura, Greater Tokyo, on the way to the Narita airport. It was set up last September. The company’s site is perfectly clean and odourless. Nothing points to the fact that inside the factory, expired bento lunch boxes are being processed into fodder and fertilizers. “Waste burning or recycling plants have quite a bad image, said Agri Gaia’s president Hiroyuki Yakou. “I don’t know what you’ve seen so far, but you certainly haven’t seen such a clean recycling plant yet!”
A new law
Mr Yakou had to fight against the protests of Sakura’s inhabitants for five years before he was able to open the factory. But the new law, which came into effect just in time -- at the end of 2007, forces the food industry and shops to declare how much provisions they waste per annum, and what they do about recycling.
The company’s entrance looks more like a hospital entrance, everything seems perfectly sterile. Visitors first have to take off their shoes. Then they are taken to a glass hall from which they can see the individual production steps. “We separate rice and low fat noodles such as soba or udon, salad with mayonnaise, desserts, pasta, cake and rice balls,” explained Agri Gaia’s boss Yakou.
Approximately 50 workers are going through the expired food packages. The packages which can be dealt with mechanically are put on a conveyor belt. Those which are wrapped up in plastic and have to be sorted by hand, are put on a different conveyor belt. “There are machines which can open bento boxes and separate the contents on the basis of their components’ weight,” explained Agri Gaia’s director Yakou. “But they are no good. That’s why we decided to use human labour.”
This way, Agri Gaia managed to increase their recycling accuracy to 99.7 percent. They can thus produce top-quality fodder which can later be adjusted to the needs of, for example, dairy cows or pigs. It’s important that the recycling process is as quick as possible so that the provisions don’t go off.
The Japanese convinis (or small convenience stores) which are usually opened twenty-four seven, prepare the expired bento boxes for collection. Mr Yakou explained what happens afterwards: “Refrigerator cars transport them at the temperature of 5 degrees Celsius, and here, they get processed on the same day, at the constant temperature of 20 degrees Celsius. The plastic plates are cleaned and taken back to the convinis.”
In 2006, approximately 11 million tonnes of food were thrown out in Japan. Only half of that amount is now being converted into fertilizers. But that should now change. That’s why the Japanese government subsidises Agri Gaia to the tune of 50 percent.
“Leftovers can be used to produce fertilizers and fodder,” said Mr Yakou. ”Fertilizers can be used for growing fruit and vegetables. And fodder is also very important for Japan because Japan’s self-sufficiency rate is only 24 percent. Everything else has to be imported. By 2015, the Japanese government wants to increase the self-sufficiency rate by 11 percent -- that is to 35 percent overall.”
The factory is the first one of its kind in Japan. But hopefully, it will set a precedent, and more factories like that will follow. The chances are quite high. Thanks to the new law, food recycling can lead to good business.