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SW Japan group develops eco-friendly bamboo paper drinking straws

Bamboo paper straws, right, and bamboo in chip form, are seen in the southwestern city of Kagoshima on July 16, 2020. (Mainichi/Junko Adachi)
An untended bamboo forest seen in the Kagoshima Prefecture city of Hioki in southwestern Japan, on June 16, 2020. (Photo courtesy of Unicolor Co-op)

KAGOSHIMA -- In an effort to reduce plastic waste, which can lead to marine pollution, and to regenerate untended forests, which can lead to mudslides, a printing industry cooperative has developed drinking straws made of bamboo paper.

    While straws made of hollow bamboo branches already existed, this is the first time in Japan that a straw made 100% from Japanese bamboo paper has been developed, according to Masakatsu Iwashige, Co-op director of Unicolor, headquartered in the Kagoshima Prefecture city of Hioki in southwestern Japan.

    Bamboo paper is made of bamboo chips instead of other kinds of wood chips that are used to make regular paper. Kagoshima Prefecture has the country's largest area of bamboo forests, at approximately 18,000 hectares as of the 2018 fiscal year. Due to the country's aging population, the number of people going into the forests to dig up bamboo shoots for eating has been declining, and the owners of much of the forests are unknown, which has led to the bamboo forests becoming overgrown and degraded. When untended, bamboo can grow at an extremely rapid rate, eroding the mountainsides where Japanese cedar and other trees would have otherwise grown, causing mudslides and other disasters.

    In an effort to increase the consumption of bamboo, Unicolor has been working on developing products using bamboo paper made at the Sendai factory of Chuetsu Pulp & Paper Co. in the prefectural city of Satsumasendai since 2009. It has already come up with notepads and boxes for shochu, a Japanese distilled spirit. Based on such experience, Unicolor began developing bamboo paper straws in 2019.

    The straw is brown, with a length of 19.5 centimeters and a diameter of 5 millimeters. Because bamboo fiber is shorter than that of coniferous trees, a major challenge was making the straw durable. With the cooperation of a domestic manufacturer, the straw's strength was increased by making it into a trilaminar structure. The straw was then made water repellent. Tests were conducted to come up with a safe but highly adhesive glue, and after a year, the straw was completed. Unicolor is now in the process of getting the product patented.

    Using a subsidy from the Kagoshima Prefectural Government, Unicolor manufactured around 30,000 straws. There is a theory that moso bamboo was first brought into Japan some 280 years ago to Sengan-en garden belonging to the Shimazu clan in the city of Kagoshima. A food truck operated by Sengan-en within Kagoshima Prefecture is also slated to use the bamboo paper straws.

    "Hopefully the bamboo paper straws will be a catalyst for people to think about using fewer plastic products and the importance of maintaining forests," Iwashige said.

    (Japanese original by Junko Adachi, Kagoshima Bureau)

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