Nara Japan makes edible bags to help Deer

22 Oct 2020

NARA - A practical solution has been developed by some residents in Nara Prefecture to prevent deer from injuring themselves by gorging on plastic waste found in Nara Park: shopping bags deer can eat.

Local businesses are working together to create and promote a special, eco-friendly paper named "Shika Gami" (deer paper) that, even if they consume it, will not harm the deer. 

The park's deer are loved by locals and are known for their polite, beautiful bows internationally. They have also been designated by the government as a national natural treasure.

But still, the deer have been swallowing plastic bags and other trash in the park, which has been a serious problem for the majestic creatures, leading in recent years to several deer deaths. 

In Tawaramoto, cosmetics wholesaler Hidetoshi Matsukawa, 43, is behind a new edible product.

For the prefecture, he described the deer as "an important resource" that must be protected and treated with value.

"Protecting deer means protecting Nara Prefecture economy," he said.

When visiting a local souvenir shop near the Todaiji temple for business talks in spring 2019, Matsukawa came up with the concept of deer-friendly paper. He heard from a temple official there that "the deer died by mistake after swallowing garbage." 

From media reports, he also learned that a mass of plastic was found lodged in the stomach of a deer in one case.

Matsukawa recalled saying, 'I should create a kind of paper resembling' Shika Senbei '(crackers fed to deer) to be used for packets. 

Two of his acquaintances working in the prefecture were contacted by Matsukawa: Takashi Nakamura, 48, who runs the paper company Nakamura, located in Tawaramoto, and Kiyoshi Ogawa, 50, the head of the printing and design business Bunyodo, located in Sakurai.

The deer-friendly material, which is made of pulp recycled from old milk cartons and the same rice bran used for Shika Senbei crackers, was made for an entire year. 

Japan Food laboratories examined the special protection paper and concluded that, at least for human beings, consuming the product presents no health hazard.

The edible bags for use on a trial basis have already been adopted by the Nara City Tourism Association and a souvenir shop around Todaiji. 

But the hefty price tag is one major obstacle to widespread adoption. 

While an ordinary plastic bag costs only a handful of yen (a few cents), the price of its Shika-Gami counterpart is about 100 yen.

"The costs can be lowered if the production of the material increases," Matsukawa said. "For a wider use of the material, we will aim to cut the price." 

But for locals worried about deer, the price point is not the only factor at issue. 

To support the campaign, Nara Chuo Shinkin Bank, which is based in Tawaramoto and has 15 branches across the prefecture, launched a total of 3,000 Shika-Gami bags at its outlets in August.

Documents and other forms will be handed to customers in special bags, according to bank executives — even if they are located far from the deer. 

"Around Tawaramoto, where we are headquartered, there are no deer, but we have sympathized with the developers' determination to protect deer in Nara Park," said Teruo Nakata, 63, the bank's managing director. 

Matsukawa said that part of the sales will be donated to the Nara Deer Preservation Foundation from the Shika-Gami bags.