In Japan, English-language newspapers are great sources of news and views and such (some more than others, of course). But a new use for them has lately arisen, with patrons of mini-trucks selling baked yaki-imo (sweet potatoes) in upscale Tokyo office districts thinking it trendy to receive their hot snacks wrapped in pages from the English-language press.

On a recent visit to Mita Library in central Tokyo, though, this writer was confronted with yet another use to which The Japan Times was being put — as the raw material for a shopping bag on display there in front of a poster announcing upcoming classes in making such bags to be held at the library in Minato Ward.

The staff of the public library said they decided to organize the event to encourage people to think about environmental issues through this practical and attractive means of recycling resources.

Satoko Yamada, one of the staff, said her colleague found an article on how to make the eco-friendly bag last October. She then found more how-to info on a website, and soon several of the library’s staff were practicing making bags in various styles.

“It might be difficult for elementary school children to do, but I think kids older than that will be able to make the bags,” Yamada said. “The method is based on origami paper-folding techniques.”

So, suitably encouraged, I joined 10 other women at a class held recently in the library. Magically, it seemed, with a few folds, some glue and a couple of staples, within 40 or 50 minutes — and with Yamada’s guidance — I and my classmates were all proudly comparing our finished new shopping bags. Happiness filled the room, and we all said how we were looking forward to making more bags at home.

One of my fellow students, a housewife named Yumiko Kawai, said she had previously only ever used old newspapers to line her dog’s toilet. “I was surprised to find out they can be turned into such a nice bag,” she said. “It’s fashionable, too,” she declared, adding, “I want to make more and use them regularly.”

Because the raw materials are readily available and virtually free, newspaper bags have steadily been becoming more popular, and there are several websites created by both individuals and groups promoting them in this country.

One such site, titled Shimanto Newspaper Bag, was created by Shimanto Drama, a company in Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku. Risho Azechi, president of the company, which sells foodstuffs and goods produced locally along the Shimanto River valley, said they started using newspaper to wrap their products in 2002 in an effort to reduce the waste of resources. Then in the following year, a staff member named Masako Ito, worked out how to use newspaper to make bags of various sizes and designs.

“She made the bags by adapting origami techniques with the dexterity for which we Japanese are known,” Azechi said.

Although the company gives free bags to customers at its shop, it also started to sell them in 2006, Azechi said. Soon, with its bags’ popularity rising, word of them reached the Boston Museum in Massachusetts, which bought a total of 5,000 of them between 2005 and 2009.

Shimanto Drama currently sells a set of its newspaper bags, together with instructions how to make them, for ¥1,735 on its website at shimanto-shinbun-bag.jp. And, in a truly green spirit, it contributes part of its revenue from those sales to the conservation of forests around the beautiful Shimanto River.

While many people nationwide now make newspaper bags, Azechi maintained that Shimanto Drama’s is an original design — hence the company is applying to patent its way of making them and forbids copying without permission. It is also offering classes leading to a license to teach how to make the bags.

In contrast, a Fukuoka-based nonprofit organization named Shimbun-Kankyo System Laboratory (SKSL) is providing instructions how to make a newspaper bag for free on its website at www.pepa.jp. SKSL also collects newspapers in its locality and sells them to recycled paper-makers — then refunds part of its receipts to donating residents.

The NPO first released the making instructions for its bag in 2008, after staffer Mutsuhiro Kaku and a colleague perfected the method. Kaku explained the organization wants to make the recipe available for everyone because the group aims to encourage their use as the most energy-efficient way of recycling newspapers.

Although many think that producing recycled papers from old newspapers is saving resources, the savings involved are considerably compromised by the huge amount of water, energy and money involved in that process, Kaku said.

“It takes 100 kg of water to produce recycled paper from 1 kg of newspapers, because they must be dissolved in water. Fuel is also required to dry the paper,” Kaku said, explaining the reason for promoting the bags.

As another form of reusing dailies, SKSL also succeeded in making pencils by wrapping their graphite leads with newspapers. The group began selling its pencils in July 2010, at ¥8,500 for 100, while its bags (and making instructions) go for ¥1,350. As SKSL has also released the instruction for how to make its pencils, many people started making them and the group has been selling 900 leads per month since November.

Meanwhile, an artist in Kyushu is turning old newspapers into artworks, which she has shown at several exhibitions. Yayoi Inaba, who lives in Tsukumi, Oita Prefecture, began creating art objects several years ago from The Japan Times, which she obtained from her daughter’s university teacher who is a subscriber. She particularIy likes the way that the layout features of different pages can be used to create a variety of designs, she said.

“For example, the TV pages which have TV stations’ names in bold, and lines in black and gray, become a beautiful and unified pattern when I fold the pages and make fans,” she said. In fact, in 2002 Inaba won an award for her fans in a wrapping-art contest held at the Hotel the Manhattan in Chiba. She also won a prize at the World Exposition held in Aichi Prefecture in 2005 with a flower arrangement of roses made from newspapers and other recycled materials.

“Through my artworks, I’d like to inform people about the importance of conserving our limited resources,” said Inaba, who also teaches how to make art objects from newspapers to hospital patients and elementary school children in Tsukumi.

“If we dispose of old newspapers with our other trash, they are just garbage. But if we keep them and reuse them, they are resources,” Inaba said.

That’s a message not lost on the people of Japan, it seems, as 78.3 percent of the nation’s used paper was collected by citizens groups, municipalities or companies for recycling in 2010 — up by 10.6 percent from 2000, according to the Paper Recycling Promotion Center, a foundation supported by paper-makers and used-paper wholesalers.

Nonethelesss, the satisfaction derived from tying up bundles of old papers and leaving them out for collection hardly compares with the joy of creating bags, pencils or works of art with just relatively few old newspapers.

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