Japanese mayor hopes to turn plastic into protein after witnessing what he calls the garbage of the river

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Mayor of Nara and Mountain Mari Kotaichika Wengoea was up early Tuesday to visit his brothers’ relatives in Nara on the eastern coast of Honshu. It was the annual New Year’s Day trip the Kwai elders try to ensure a happy beginning for their goats and sheep.

During the overcast morning, Kotaichika was surprised to see that a piece of thick plastic that came from a business in Nara was floating among the tiny rafts of the river. He had the bags shipped to Tokyo in a bid to make this material the stuff of everyday life in Nara, where over the past 70 years hundreds of thousands of acres of rare prime agricultural land have been converted to golf courses, construction projects, homes, malls, and similar big-bang wastes, according to Japan’s meteorological agency.

“I do not want to see any more plastic in the river,” Kotaichika told The Japan Times. “I am going to find a way to use [the plastic] in an edible way,” he added. It is a promising idea — but all is not entirely clear.

While the Japanese government has taken notice of the sight of garbage in the river and is dedicated to making changes, the plastic waste problem remains deep rooted in the Japanese psyche. In July 2017, Japan launched a multi-agency campaign to tackle it. In October, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a raft of environmental challenges to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. The world’s second-largest economy has also come under fierce criticism from environmental groups for its reliance on plastic.

One solution is “evaporation iscoil,” an invention developed by researchers at University of Tokyo designed to use the sun’s rays to break down polyethylene bags and turn their component sugars into edible substances like soya or rice. The project also represents an example of how old and old-fashioned ideas can break new ground in modern science.

The University of Tokyo said two of the team’s members, Yasuo Takamoto and Shinji Mizuki, will be competing against 61 other contestants for first prize at the TAR (Tokyo Association for Science and Technology) competition to be held in April.

Kotaichika has said he does not expect to win that prize, though. He would rather lead the charge in developing the substance in Nara, where no shortage of jobs are available.

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