January 31, 2005


the Regional Circulation Network

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.29 (January 2005)
"Unique NGOs in Japan" Article Series No.8

Re-confirming Relationships among People, the Community and the Earth

Late last November, the Waste Control and Recycling Technology Exhibition was held for the 14th time; this was WASTEC 2004. The aim of this general convention is to contribute to reducing environmental impacts through waste management and recycling.

Companies and organizations that develop technologies and systems for waste treatment and recycling, or manufacture and supply such equipment, participate together with their clients in this exhibition to present their efforts and perspectives. An exhibition co-event gives WASTEC Awards to companies or organizations that have achieved excellence in this field.

In 2004, the winner of the Environment Minister's Award, the WASTEC Awards' grand prize, was not a large company with the latest technology or manufacturing facilities, but a non-profit organization that is making a great contribution to creating a recycling-based society in a local community. In this article, we will introduce this award-winning organization, the Regional Circulation Network.

The Regional Circulation Network is based in Nagaoka City, Niigata Prefecture. Nagaoka is about 80 minutes north of Tokyo by bullet train and has a population of 190,000. It is located at the south end of the Niigata Plain, with the Shinano River running from north to south through its center. It is hot and humid in summer and very windy and snowy in winter, typical weather along the Japan Sea coast.

The city's main industries involve the manufacture of machinery, electronic goods and precision instruments. These manufacturing businesses have grown up here since the mid-Meiji Era, and about 23 percent of workers in Nagaoka are still engaged in manufacturing. Having about 12,800 farmers, Nagaoka is also one of the major producers of rice in the prefecture, mainly Japan's deluxe "Koshihikari" rice variety.

Nagaoka is a beautiful city through all four seasons, but the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquake, which hit central Niigata Prefecture in October 2004, caused tremendous damage here - about 50,000 houses were completely or partially destroyed. Having just experienced this disaster, the presentation of this award to a local NGO was a great encouragement to Nagaoka citizens.

The Regional Circulation Network - Background

This Network promotes the recycling of food waste from school lunches at all schools in the city - it was this activity that led to the establishment of the Network and remains one of its essential programs.

The Network started out as a citizens' group named the "Mizubasho (White Arum) Group," formed in 1994 to work on recycling kitchen garbage from households. In the course of this work, the group noticed that a significant amount of leftovers were generated from school lunches, so it began to collect food waste from schools.

At this juncture, in September 1997, the Regional Circulation Network was founded. Although the Network initially collected food waste from only nine schools, by April 2004 this number had increased to 80 and is still increasing - 88 as of January 2005.

The Network's program recycles this food waste, which would otherwise be incinerated or dumped in landfills. One notable aspect is that citizen action is the basis of the Network's contribution to creating a recycling-based society.

The School Food Waste Recycling System

The Network collects school lunch waste from nursery, elementary and junior high schools in the city and transports it to three livestock breeders located in the city. There the waste is fermented together with bean curd pressings, rice cracker crumbs, miso and soy sauce production residues, and rice bran, which have also been collected in Nagaoka.

This mixed, fermented waste is suitable for feeding livestock, and meat from these livestock operations is sometimes used in cooking school lunches. The Network now annually recycles about 1,000 tons of food waste, including about 290 tons of school lunch waste, that would otherwise be incinerated.

Each Participant Plays a Key Role

Today, Nagaoka City commissions the Regional Circulation Network to conduct this School Lunch Waste Recycling Program, but the Network organization employs only 9 people, nowhere near enough to carry out the whole program. Its smooth operation can only be secured through the cooperation of many people.

School lunch cooks and students sort and drain the food waste and divide it into two categories, one for cattle (herbivores) and one for hogs and minks (omnivores). Since 80 percent of the waste is water, it is important to reduce its moisture content for recycling as feed.

Many citizen volunteers participate in the program, collecting the food waste from schools and transporting it to livestock breeders. At present, about 30 citizens regularly do this volunteer work. Each volunteer supports the Network's activities in his or her own way: some work every weekday, and others use their spare time.

Once the waste is delivered, the next step is up to the livestock breeders. They add a fermenting material called "EM (Effective Microorganisms)-bokashi" to the waste in order to promote its fermentation. Then they mix the fermented waste with bean curd pressings and rice cracker crumbs to help absorb moisture.

Sometimes rice bran is added for nutrition, because a well-balanced feed cannot be made using only school lunch waste. Drying reduces the mixture's weight by four fifths. It then takes another four to seven days to complete the fermentation process. The resulting feed is perfect for raising livestock, and in the final phase breeders sell the meat, processed food products, and processed food ingredients .

In practice, this program is managed by a large number of people - volunteers, schools, cooks and many others - in addition to the employees of the government-commissioned NPO

Program Results

This program not only puts to use about 290 tons of waste annually, but it also helps students and citizens clearly recognize the relationship between their meals and food production sites. In addition to enhancing food-related and environmental education, it promotes the consumption of locally-produced food, reduces carbon dioxide emissions from incinerators, and fosters a lively social movement.

On receiving the WASTEC Award, the Network commented: "Though 'creating a recycling-based social system' may sound difficult, we are taking an approach that is comprehensible to anyone by using a system that turns our leftovers into livestock feed, and livestock into food.

We want to keep on working to diffuse the idea of material cycle systems through this initiative that involves local government, a non-profit organization and businesses".

The Network's expanding activities

The Network is working on various other initiatives at the same time. The Chopstick Recycling program, for instance, promotes the utilization of used disposable chopsticks collected from restaurants in Nagaoka City as material for making paper and charcoal.

As of June 2004, 221 restaurants are cooperating with this program. Another example is the Eco Green Club program, which exchanges household kitchen waste for meat. Cooperating families dry their kitchen waste using an electric disposal unit installed at each house. The Network collects the dried waste for use as livestock feed, and distributes meat and eggs to the families in return.

The fuel used to dry food waste for recycling at schools is reformulated kerosene derived from used cooking oil. The Network collects used cooking oil from restaurants in the city, and transports it to a plant where it is processed into recycled fuel. Each activity is inseparably connected, a reminder of how various things are connected in our lives as well.

Nagaoka City has an old story about 100 bales of rice that became famous when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi quoted it in a general policy speech. In the early Meiji Period, when Nagaoka province was defeated and devastated in the Boshin War (1868), neighboring Mineyama province (now Maki Town of Nishi Kambara, Niigata Prefecture) contributed a hundred bales of rice - about six tons - to succor the people of Nagaoka.

However, Torasaburo Kobayashi, one of the leaders of Nagaoka at the time, insisted, "Human resources are the primary source of prosperity in any country or city. When we find ourselves in need of food, what we really need to do is educate our people." And he persuaded the samurai of the Nagaoka clan to sell all the contributed rice in order to found of a new school rather than distribute it for immediate consumption. The school was named Kokkan Gakko, literally, "school of Japanese and Chinese literature."

Citizens of Nagaoka are thus thought to have inherited the ability to avoid being shortsighted and think ahead. This rooted concept of looking to the future may have helped citizens steadily accept each progressive initiative by the Network.

* Some participants have been obliged to suspend their activities due to the October 2004 earthquake. Messages of encouragement from readers around the world would be welcome.

(Staff Writer Hiroyo Hasegawa)