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Small Town's Effort Attracts Nationwide Attention

June 22, 1999

A field of rape plants ready to be harvested for their oil.

A small town tucked away in the middle of the Japanese archipelago is attracting nationwide attention for the campaign it began this spring to build a recycling society. The townspeople of Aito in Shiga Prefecture pooled their resources and came up with a recycling campaign that kills not two but three birds with one stone.

Dubbed the "yellow rape plant eco-project," the campaign involves growing rape plants in idle farmland to improve the town's scenery, then taking oil from the plants for use in homes, and finally retrieving the spent oil and using it as diesel fuel for automobiles. It is only a small effort by a small community, but already expectations are blossoming for an expansion of rape plant fields and the creation of a new recycling-oriented society.

Turning a Desolate Plot into a Field of Flowers
Aito is situated on the eastern side of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest lake, at the foot of the Suzuka Mountains; it is an agricultural community with a population of about 6,000. In the past the district's farmland, sprawling in an extensive alluvial fan, created an idyllic rural scene. The government's policy over the last decade or so of cutting back on rice cultivation, prompted by a rice surplus, however, has led to an increase of idle farmland, which has changed the scenery for the worse. The people of the town therefore came up with the idea of growing rape plants in the idle farmland and recycling the oil taken from the plants.

The campaign began this year with the planting of rape seedlings in a 50-acre field near a highway parking area selling farm produce and other town specialties. Seeds were sown in a greenhouse last fall, and the seedlings were transplanted to the field, completely transforming what had been a desolate plot into a carpet of yellow flowers in April. In May the flowers were harvested and pressed using an oil press borrowed from a local farm. The strained plants were used as fodder for livestock, the extracted rape oil, for the time being, was used in the preparation of lunches at town schools, and the waste kitchen oil was recycled as diesel fuel for vehicles owned by the township.

Aito is enthusiastic about expanding the project. There are plans to increase the number of fields and to have elementary and junior high school students take part in transplanting the seedlings and harvesting the flowers as part of their environmental education curriculum. The town is hoping to make the oil available to ordinary households as well as to eventually market it in other places around the country. It also envisages selling the recycled diesel fuel for use in commercial vehicles.

In the Works for 20 Years
The foundations for this unique and visionary project were laid about 20 years ago, when Aito set about recycling discarded items that could be reused. Now the town carries out a thorough waste-separation program, with beverage cans, for example, being divided into steel and aluminum, bottles divided into four colors (clear, brown, green, and black), and items like milk cartons, waste kitchen oil, and used batteries collected separately. The collected items are sold or handed over to manufacturers.

Three years ago, using subsidies of 3 million yen from the central and prefectural governments, Aito built a plant capable of converting 100 liters of waste kitchen oil into diesel fuel every day and set about recycling the spent oil from households. In 1998 the town retrieved about 3,600 liters of waste kitchen oil; half of this was turned into soap and sold, the other half was recycled as fuel and used for town-owned vehicles.

As a result, the per capita volume of waste produced in Aito declined dramatically to 285 grams per day in fiscal 1997--less than a third of the average of 944 grams for all Shiga residents. More than half of the town's waste kitchen oil, moreover, is retrieved and processed for reuse.

In launching the rape plant project, Aito says it learned much from Germany's example, where the use of rapeseed oil is quite advanced. Germany began researching the topic immediately after the oil crises in the 1970s and now has 800 stands selling rapeseed oil as auto fuel, catering mainly to taxis. Aito's efforts in this direction are likely to become an important model for Japan as a whole in the years ahead.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.