Sustainable Tourism in Japan - innovation & inspiration

Upcycle Products Available in Japan

There is growing awareness in Japan about the need to reuse and repurpose as well as reduce and recycle things we use every day. Living a purely disposable lifestyle is not only unsustainable but also dissatisfying. One interesting development is the increase in creative entrepreneurs, NPO’s and even major companies which are investing time and resources into tackling this issue by repurposing waste materials into ‘upcycled’ goods.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway co. established the upcycled Circulation Shutoko bags which are colorful and hardwearing tote bags made out of disused roadside signs and banners. The bags are called the Hataraku-tote, or worker’s tote bag.

The designs are all unique as they come from different cuts of different banners- many feature numbers or Japanese Kanji characters and all are hand-sewn into high-quality bags that can be used for many years. Online sales available from the Shutoko-Omiyage official shop [Japanese], or available at some RooTote shops in airports, Tokyu Hands and online shops such as Rakuten sometimes carry it.

The zero-waste town of Kamikatsu has been targeting reusing and upcycling as key elements to reduce the town’s waste. These tactics are necessary for the town to achieve its goal of reusing or recycling ALL waste materials by 2020 (now at 80%). The town has made progress in reducing waste further by installing two ‘KURU-KURU’ (‘circular’ or ‘in & out’) shops.
In the first KURUKURU shop, any unwanted items can be dropped-off for others to take and use freely. As of the time of writing, visitors can’t leave items in the shop, but are encouraged to take items for free which are available to visitors in front of the market and other shops around town.

The second KURUKURU shop employs retired residents to upcycle waste materials into bags, jackets, stuffed animals and other attractive items which are for sale in the Zero-Waste Academy’s shop. They even have looms which upcycle unusable waste textile material together again to create clothing, bags and other high-quality items. Many of the most popular items are upcycled from the colorful, bold designs of the flying Carp Koi-Nobori streamers which so famously fly across the town’s valley.

Kamikatsu’s two high-quality craft breweries Rise & Win and Stone Wall Hill are excellent examples of upcycling as the brewery structures, decor and wallpaper are all upcycled from waste materials. The staff further upcycle old newspapers into shopping bags as well as repurpose any containers for foods and beer sold in its shops.

Another artistic stand-out in upcycling goods is Newsed , a creative company that redesigns unwanted materials into new fashionable designs to extend the life of the resources from the originally made, unused product. The products are sold at museum shops and other art and design focused shops across Japan.

Some interesting items in the NEWSED collection are the airbag seat covers, the post school ‘after-school’ repurposed desk home tables, seat-belt bow-tie, waste wood that is usually discarded in the process of making xylophones musical instruments is repurposed into stylish corkscrews, and even plastic tarpaulin-banners repurposed into animal shapes to decorate a garden, decorative figures or keychains.
It’s worth having a look at this website a few times of year- many of the items have descriptions in Japanese and English. Everything is handmade in Japan and prices reflect the value put on these one-of-a-kind creations.

There are some upcycled goods imported to Japan which support NPO’s and fair-trade organisations abroad such as this Bicycle inner tube repurposed bracelets available at Amazon Japan. Another is the upcycled fruit juice boxes handwoven into cute, hard-wearing tote bags by an NPO working in the Phillippines is sold by KILUS company- available at Rakuten-Japan.

California surf and skate company RAREFORM upcycled surfboard covers, bags, totes and snowboard covers are also available on Rakuten. Rareform’s infographic (above) follows the same innovative business concept of waste harvesting to design, development and creation of a new upcycled product to sales method gaining momentum across the US, Japan and the rest of the world. It’s important to pay tribute to the Freitag company which made the upcycle bag a profitable business model over twenty-years ago when it designed a stylish messenger bag made of disused truck cover vinyl in Zurich in 1993.

One major company that is making headlines in tackling some of the plastic waste it generates is the Kao Company. This soap and cleaning products manufacturer has been piloting a new scheme to collect after-use refill packs from customers to turn the plastic waste into new products. The pilot scheme was launched in collaboration with the Zero-Waste town of Kamikatsu. Upcycled play blocks were donated back to Kamikatsu’s local elementary school which were made from repurposing the plastic waste material of the refill packs collected in the town. Here’s a video of this Kao refill pack to block ‘Recy-Creation’ project and workshop held in Kamikatsu here [Japanese].

The limits to how much we can reuse waste materials only seems limited by a lack of ingenuity.

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